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.

Down to earth – Still time to plant …

… those ticking time bombs of hope. (There really is. Here at least.) Originally published November 13 in East Bay/South Coast Life.

Now that we’ve had a killing frost, not to mention a super storm and slushy nor’easter, the garden is finally shutting itself down, and my days of feeling guilty for not accomplishing as much as I’d wish I had are coming to an end.

Whatever didn’t get divided and transplanted might just wait for spring now. But I’ll keep feeling guilty about not planting bulbs. And I’ll definitely kick myself come spring if I don’t plant a few because unlike transplanting the daisies, it really can’t be postponed until then. That said, the window of opportunity is still wide open. As long as the ground isn’t frozen solid and we’re still months away from March, there’s time.

I’m deeply conflicted about that because I don’t enjoy planting bulbs, which is strange considering how easy it is compared to transplanting a shrub or dividing a perennial. They’re such self-contained, efficient little things — just tiny ticking time bombs of hope. To light their fuse all they need is to be tucked into a deep slot of earth, down two to three times as deep as they are wide around the middle. Easy, right? Not if your soil is as stony as mine or if you’re trying to get them as close as possible to shrubs and perennials in an effort to avoid digging them back up again when you go to plant something else in June.

I usually get down on all fours with my Japanese digging knife (hori-hori). It’s sharp enough to slide between rocks and roots and only as wide as the average tulip bomb. I make a stab or two to loosen the soil a bit and while the hori-hori is still buried to the handle, I shove the bulb in, pointy side up, along the steel to the bottom, cave the soil back in as I pull the blade back out and move on to the next stab. I know a gardener who uses a pointed seed-planting tool — a dibble — for planting small bulbs. She punches holes, drops a bulb down and fills in after it with compost. That’s brilliant, even if hauling a tub of compost around the garden seems more effortful than appealing.

Part of me wants to plant small bulbs enough to follow through. Things like crocus, winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa forbesii) and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) don’t need to be planted very deeply. I also love that they carpet the ground floor of spring in the colors of sun and sky, and naturalize freely. Maybe a little too freely in the case of grape hyacinth, but that just means there’s no need to replant next year unless I decide I need them somewhere else, too (in which case I would probably opt to scatter their seeds or transplant patches of bulbils in spring). As much as I love seeing tulips in the garden and miss them when they disappear, they do diminish after a couple-three years and I have to wrestle with the will I/won’t I bulb-planting guilt all over again.

'Lady Jane' tulip bomb

I shouldn’t generalize because not all tulips die out. Tulipa clusiana‘Lady Jane’ for one, whose bulbs really do look like little brown bombs at least until they go off in early May with narrow blue-green leaves and exquisitely delicate pink-flared petals, is a species variety. Species tulips should last longer in the garden and even increase, unless squirrels eat the bulbs. Cross your fingers that this year there are enough acorns to go around. Otherwise, try pinning chicken wire over your planting sites or spicing the soil up every so often with a dash of red-hot chili flakes.

This is good — thanks for listening. I have just about talked myself into planting a few time bombs before tucking myself in for winter hibernation. The only thing that could hold me back now is availability. I wasn’t on the ball back in July when the catalogs arrived, so I’ll hope that the local nurseries haven’t sold out of crocus yet. But if they have, I could always console myself with forcing amaryllis grenades inside instead.

(In the end I planted a couple dozen crocus and chionodoxa and some leftover throwaway tulips from work. No amaryllis at all.)

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

I am not a fan of power tools. I’d rather wreck my back using a push mower (only until I have no lawn left) and wish for many reasons that all leaf blowers on the planet would simultaneously self-destruct. So when Troy-Bilt offered me the power tool of my choice to review – sort of like winning a kind of bloglottery – I hesitated and even gnashed a little in frustration at my luck not running towards a shiny new spade or a truck full of perennials instead. But when I looked out at my enormous debris-cum-compost pile it occurred to me that Troy-Bilt probably makes chipper shredders…

A friendly correspondent at Troy-Bilt helped me choose the chipper shredder 4325 which is their hard-core model capable of chipping branches up to 3″ in diameter. By now I’ve used it (by which I mean Z has used it while I delivered debris and watched) twice to open the path back up to our compost bins.

Out of the box it rolled easily into position and started up like a shiny red champ – 2 hard tugs on the cord and away she went. After a couple months in the garage it was more reluctant to start and if it had been up to me to keep pulling the cord, I might have given up. But once going (6 or more tugs and some monkeying with knobs), cs 4325 hummed away. Loudly. It’s really loud. Offer ear protection to the neighbors and put all the kids down cellar because as power tools go, this has to be among the most damaging to the drums. (My neighbors use leaf blowers so I consider cs 4325 their comeuppance.)

The shredder chute – the largest opening – is at about chest height on me and even for Z who stands 6′ tall, it’s forearm barking high. I guess that’s for safety reasons because there’s no way, even for a super tall person with simian arms, to reach down the opening and touch the blades. The chute also necks down from a good 18″ or so to about 8″ and then turns a corner before the blade house. According to Z, a well sifted armful of leaves could be dropped and sucked around the corner easily. All of my chunky debris (4′ weed stalks, armfuls of dried lavender stems, etc) needed a little more encouragement to turn the corner. Z finally settled on using a 1×6″ plank to push everything through. (Since a one-by-six can’t turn corners, there seems to be no danger of it, along with its handler, being sucked into the blades.)

The chipper chute angles out in the opposite direction – on the engine side of the machine – from the shredder mouth necessitating a complete shift in operator orientation. If you try to stand where you can easily-ish reach both chutes, exhaust will burn your legs or dust will blow up your nose. The lazy multi-tasker in me might have been annoyed by that but Z organized my pile and did the dance with grace.

The largest branch he put through (the chipper chute) was about 2″ in diameter and according to Z, the greener the wood, the better for finding the blade without getting hung up. He did also say that anything that could be encouraged one way or another to reach the blade would be chipped, no problem. My enormous piles of chunky yard waste were literally reduced to shreds and I was amazed at the uniformity and tininess of the resulting stuff. It makes beautiful mulch or a sweet layer for the compost pile. And all of the shreds were shot right into a sack (provided with the machine) which made clean-up and distribution incredibly easy.

To sum up, I’d give cs 4325 5 stars for being able to shred so much of my unruly pile of yard debris; 3 stars for a reluctant start (and needing to have a strong arm to pull again and again); and 2 stars for wonky ergonomics and design.

For clarity and full disclosure, I’ll say it again: Some fellow bloggers might claim I’ve gone to the dark side, but Troy-Bilt sent this expensive tool to me free of charge in exchange for an honest review.