Down to earth — every day is thanksgiving day

Originally published November 23, 2016 in EastBayRI newspapers.

I never liked being put on the spot at Thanksgiving. No matter how grateful I am for things like my health, a loving family, generous friends, and homemade cranberry sauce, someone else around the table will have already mentioned it. Can’t just say “ditto” on Thanksgiving. There’s too much else to list, if only one’s mind didn’t go completely blank. That must be why some smart people keep journals. Gratitude takes practice.

Right this minute, even as I type, I can’t take my eyes away from the garden window. (I am grateful to my high school typing teacher for being so strict about not peeking at the keys.) On this rainy November day, as the sun is setting much too early (thanks –no thanks!– to the time shift), the light has a golden cast. Is it the sunset soaking through the clouds or is the glow emanating from the blazing yellow foliage of threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrecktii) and bushclover (Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’) and a Rosa rugosa that looks lit from within?

Since writing the above, the light has gone lavender, tinted pinkish perhaps by the fire engine red of my sorry sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum). Sorry because it lost its health to too many run ins with the lawn mower as a sapling, and its top to a summer gale. I won’t cut the rest down until every last leaf has dropped one last time. With it gone I’m sure I will be glad to notice how the ‘Prairifire’ crabapple in my front yard displays a motley calico instead of committing to a single color.

In the summer garden a little red goes a long way. I am so leery of overusing it I can’t name a single red flower in my garden (though I wouldn’t turn down a small division of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ if any were on offer). But when the Fothergilla × intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ turns every shade of red and the highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) go bing cherry, I can’t get enough of it. Did you know Penstemon digitalis stems turn red too or do you cut their seedheads down right after they bloom? Maybe don’t next year.

I’m not a huge fan of yellow in the summer garden either — I prefer the gaze of black-eyed Susans after they lose their school-bus-yellow lashes — but when plants compete with a low sun, I’m all for it even if it comes from everyday puddles of melted hosta or strands of expiring daylily. Probably goes without saying that a low sun shining through a bright orange sugar maple in someone else’s garden (a bright orange anything, any time of year) will stop me in my tracks for a heartfelt thank you. No matter how long you’ve lived in New England, gardener or not, it’s impossible to take fall for granted.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ gone golden (with Bazil for contrast)


By the time you read this the days will be even shorter, the shadows longer, and most of the leaves will have fallen. Another reason to be thankful if you, like me, use that bounty as free mulch. Hardly any fall in my yard so I get mine by the bagful from those generous friends I mentioned being grateful for earlier.

If mindfulness is one of the keys to gratitude we gardeners have it easy. No matter how frustrating the weather might be, or how disappointing it is when the hydrangeas never bloom, when we’re paying attention – and we always are, about a million other things will surprise and delight us. Even though I never manage to write it all down, I should be able to recall one or two blessings from my seat at the Thanksgiving table this year.

You too?

Down to earth — madness

(Originally published in EastBayRI newspapers sometime in March. I have been remiss in reposting! But because it is currently snowing outside, I thought I might as well make up for misplaced intentions. What’s written below isn’t old news — although I really-really-really wish it was.)

I spent the entire Sunday of the time change outdoors soaking up the sun, holding sweet and earthy scents in my nose, listening to birds compete for attention, and gardening as if it’s spring. The very next day it sleeted. Dark gray days of rain followed, then sun again. As I write this, there’s snow forecast for the equinox. March, poor thing, suffers from wild mood swings.

I know that about March (and can relate) but I started cutting my garden back anyway weeks ago at the first hint of April. Suddenly I couldn’t stand to look at its tatters for one more minute. I hauled armloads of fallen stems and seedheads that no longer held any winter interest to the compost pile. When that back and forthing became too tedious, I broke the rest of the debris into bits and spread it as mulch around my perennials’ sprouting crowns. Tidiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. (My mess is creative clutter.)

In the last couple weeks those perennials have put on another bit of growth while spring marched on. Redwing blackbirds came back at the beginning of the month (if not before); I heard choruses of spring peepers sound in my neighborhood on the evening of the10th. On the 12th I noticed black-crowned night herons and a pair of Canada geese had returned to the tiny Tanyard Brook reservoir on State Street in Bristol (my favorite place to bird and turtle watch through the chainlink). Crocuses vied with snowdrops on social media for most-liked, #spring. Pussy willows broke out of bud and the earliest daffodils began blaring tiny trumpets.

I’m a little nervous about jumping the gardening gun but my inclination, despite sleet, frosty nights, and humbugging snow is to trust the signs and follow their cues. So now I’m waiting, sort of impatiently if my inability to wait patiently is anything to go by, for the forsythia to bloom. Its yellow arches and mounds are the universal signal that the ground has warmed another notch, and it’s time to commence the next to-do on my list: rose pruning. But rose buds have already swelled and the other day I couldn’t keep my pruners pocketed. You try.

Most* of the roses we grow around here are so hardy and unperturbed by March’s moods that they won’t be overly injured by premature pruning. *I did once almost kill a marginally hardy rose by accidentally pruning it before a very hard and prolonged April freeze. Mea culpa. But if the rose I pruned last week suffers any dieback I’ll just prune it again shorter this time and be happy I did. Which says something because I’m in the habit of lopping my roses to within inches (12-to-18”) of the ground. There are invisible dormant buds up and down rose canes, even all along the old gnarly trunks, which respond to severe pruning (and a topdressing of compost) with gratifying vigor. It’s actually very hard to kill a rose. Even for me.

Along with roses, it will be high time to prune butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii and cvs.), bush clover (Lespedeza spp.), blue beard (Caryopteris ×clandonensis), and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) to their lowest buds (anywhere from about 2 to 12” from the ground). Might as well shear the lavender then too but not nearly as hard—cutting back into the woody bits generally only gains you ugly stumps.

In the meantime, while the weather goes through its moody March madness, holding our horses gives us gardeners a good chance to reassess, dream, and plan. As perennials begin to flush out from dormancy so do the memories of the best intentions I formed last year and over the winter. I could—and should—stay busy making endless lists of all of the changes I want to make. And, after the pruning is done, the daffodils peak, the tulips begin to bloom, and the ground dries out a bit, all signs will point to digging in. By then spring won’t be denied and neither will we.

She says. But here it is, April 4 and there’s a good 4 or 5 inches of snow on the ground and counting. Last week or the week before it was in the balmy 60s. (Even my mood swings aren’t this violent.) Daffodils — in peak! –have faceplated; muscari and chionodoxa are buried; forsythia is trying to look tough; my magnolia is toast. Big sigh. Spring marches on? Remains to be seen here. How about in your garden? 

Agree to disagree

We can always count on Mother Nature to give us gardeners something safe(r) to talk about when the news is bleak and full of polarizing politics. Temperatures in the 50s and low 60s for the last couple of weeks have made the weather a hot enough topic to justify changing the subject whenever things get uncomfortable. I’ve had the windows wide open on the warmest days. Night temperatures have gone down into the low 30s now and again but it’s the middle of December and we haven’t had a real killing frost yet. And some plants, like trumpet honeysuckle, borage, and daphne are still putting a surprising amount of effort into flowering.

And other plants are jumping the gun. A few weeks ago I noticed rhododendron buds opening. My holly, in full berry, was blooming last week. A local friend recently posted a picture on facebook of a snowdrop in bloom. People have also mentioned seeing cracks in magnolia buds and Lenten rose hellebores in bloom. (Or are they confusing Helleborus orientalis with the Christmas rose, H. niger?) It’s almost impossible not to see all of this as a sign of the apocalypse but it also feels really familiar to me. I freely admit that my memory is terrible but I can barely recall the last time we had a white Christmas. The forsythia always blooms in fall at least a little bit and so do the autumn-blooming cherry trees. I remember the year kniphofia and nicotiana were still spiking in December and the crabapples bloomed.

I know there’s cause for worry. Open magnolia buds will be torched by the cold that’s bound to come along at some point, and any cherry trees blooming prematurely won’t be able to put on much of a show in the spring. But I also am inclined to put worries aside and enjoy the mild weather and all of the weirdness resulting from it. Because if this winter is anything like last winter, the mercury will do a nosedive eventually and then it will be the cold that seems interminable, apocalyptic, and weird. And I’ll probably be glad for the excuse to change the subject.

Have you been talking about the weather? What’s blooming?

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?

In dying color

The garden makes senescence look like a party. Call me me a ghoul (you wouldn’t be the first) but I can’t help wishing that when my time comes, I might go out with a riotous blaze too.

Happy All Souls’ Day!