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!

Down to earth — change is good

Originally published on September 24, 2015 in East Bay/South Coast Life newspapers.

I wish I could put my hands on the New York Times article clipped for me by a friend in which the author, or maybe it was an interviewee, shared the reason behind his lifelong passion for gardening. The gist was, through all of life’s upheavals and shifts; through births, deaths, changes in status and financial situation, gardening was what kept him grounded. This friend knew it would strike a chord with me—as it must with most gardeners. My garden is where I go to process everything that happens in my life, good and bad. There’s something about pulling crabgrass and creeping Charlie that helps untangle the mind. And whenever life slides sideways, our own gardens offer the reassurance and satisfaction of complete (creative) control, or at least the illusion of it. But it also doesn’t make a lot of sense to feel grounded out there considering nothing changes as much as gardens do.

I knew my garden would grow during my weeklong vacation from it but it defied my predictions even so. I was sure the bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’) would spend the week bursting into bloom but it held off to do more growing instead, stretching its branches like an octopus across a vast expanse of occupied territory. I had to get the loppers out to reintroduce its neighbors to the light of day, and have enjoyed the boon of vases filled with glorious overgrowth. I also didn’t realize until I came back just how much rudbeckia I had allowed to grow. Again. This happens every year, as do floral arrangements heavy on black-eyed Susans. And I had been kidding myself about the weeds. They were in there all along waiting for me to need a good think.

premature fall color on my alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)
premature fall color on my alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

I was braced for the Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’) that we moved to make way for an outdoor shower, to keel over dead. It didn’t! But while it exhibits small signs of growth, the alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) left just outside the shower enclosure, which should be enjoying the benefits of runoff, is beginning to look ungrateful. I thought it might have a fungal disease but prematurely turning leaves more likely indicate drought stress.—I guess the shower’s drainage is sharper than we thought.

My serviceberry (Amelancheir × grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’) is in similarly rough shape. Every day I wonder what I was thinking planting an understory tree in a thimbleful of dry soil in the full sun between my driveway and side entrance. Most summers it’s dusted and distorted by cedar apple rust. This year its leaves began turning fall colors back in July and it didn’t do much growing. With any luck—and plenty of supplemental water at least until nature kicks in her share again—my trees will survive interference with their health and happiness. Just in case they don’t, I’m running through mental lists of replacements the bees, birds, and I might enjoy as much.

Nothing changes in the garden without presenting gifts of purpose and beauty along with exciting possibilities, which illuminates the irony: it must be the garden’s very inconstancy that helps us gardeners navigate through life’s sometimes terrifying feelings of groundlessness. Not just by bringing us back down to earth but by teaching us how to be comfortable with—and even enjoy—uncertainty.

Move it or lose it

One of the trees I was given and impulsively planted in the wrong spot was a Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’); a super sweet tree with deep green plumage and limbs spread like it’s stuck doing an interpretive dance. At the time it was given to us, by EB who happens to be the arborist in the family, it seemed like the best idea ever to plant it next to the house (quite close) on the back garden side. A few years later I planted a tiny alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) on the lawn side of it because there was no other vacancy in the yard, and besides, I wanted to watch the dogwood’s birds from my bathroom window (à la Doug Tallamy). In the intervening years both plants grew. The dogwood far outpaced my expectations and the Hinoki has been no slouch growth-wise either (both are 10′ tall). Even though the Hinoki ended up half hidden by the dogwood, I could have kept living with those stoopid decisions for a while if Z and I hadn’t started talking again about putting in an outdoor shower. The Hinoki, we decided, had to go. But I didn’t want to lose it.

After consulting EB, who prudently suggested we wait until fall to move the tree, we prepped instead for a more immediate move by watering the tree for a couple of weeks, praying for rain (we got about an inch last week), identifying a new spot on the north side of the house, evicting what lived there (my beloved Rubus odoratus), and digging a hole.

The move this weekend took about 2 hours start to finish, which seemed quick to me but then I didn’t have to do much of the heavy lifting or cramped-quarters digging. Big thanks to EB and Z for all that. And so far, although both trees lost significant root mass, so good. I’ll baby both of them with mulch, plenty of water (the dogwood will eventually reap the benefits of shower run-off), and have promised to loosely tether the Hinoki to keep it from tipping over in the wind. I’m beyond grateful to EB for his expertise, hard labor after a heavy Sunday breakfast, and reassurances that all will be well.

Have you ever planted a tree in the wrong spot? How long did you wait before moving/losing it? Did it survive transplant and thrive?

Down to earth — room for improvement

(Originally published on May 27, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

My garden is as full of mistakes as it is of plants. When I’m feeling extra critical or envious of picture-perfect gardens in magazines I see all of the stupid ideas, misplaced plants, egregious wonkiness, and weeds. And then I pick at every error I’ve made through the years like a scab.

My first mistake was to start planting immediately. Every gardener (including me) will tell you to wait at least one year before adding anything or making major changes to a new property. We all agree it’s important to learn the lay of the land; where the sun shines as it arcs through the seasons, where the rain collects and doesn’t. Could I wait a single minute after signing the papers for this patch of earth? Nope. We gardeners are a patient bunch—we love to watch things grow—but I can’t imagine any of us being able to resist the urge to plant as soon as we have the chance. Because they also say it takes at least twelve years for a garden to come into its own. (“They” being those gardeners who have tended the same plot for twenty years or more.) Please. My garden is almost two-thirds of the way through its twelve year sentence and I still can’t wait that long.

But now, long since making the mistake of haste, I can see the virtue in thinking before digging. Not only do I wish I had spent more time planning my garden before filling it to the gills but sometimes I kick myself for not springing for a consultation with a professional designer. Someone with an eye for gracious spaces who might have preempted my inclinations for tall plants near entries, and narrow pathways.

Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite, gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)
Narrow sideyard path showing my favorite and gifted Lawson cypress before it died. (c. 2013)

Sticking to a plant list matching my garden’s specific cultural conditions and space considerations would have been a good idea too. My biggest challenge lies in falling in love with almost every plant that passes in front of my eyes or nose, and in being incapable of refusing friends’ generosity. Without a proper plan and list, it has been impossible not to break the cardinal rule of gardening: Plant the Right Plant in the Right Place. I have planted a lot of those gifts—right plants every one—in wrong places. Not a big deal when it comes to perennials that manage to survive long enough for me to replant them as appropriate spots become available, but more of a problem with trees and shrubs. Far too many of those have either outgrown their wrong place and clogged the path or failed to thrive in conditions not conducive to health and happiness.

As my garden grows, I’m getting better at saying, “No, thank you” to offers of plants I didn’t know I wanted. That said, every impulsively placed plant has taught me something new about my garden; every edit, transplant, eviction, and untimely death has shown me where there’s room for improvement. Mistakes are great that way. I pick at their scabs not because I want to beat myself up for being a lousy designer, but because it’s the mistakes, more than the successes, that make the garden interesting, and keep it changing and coming into its own, week to week and year by year.

Stay tuned. Z and I just removed a stupidly sited flowering raspberry (Rubus odorous — the leafy green bramble on the right in the above pic). Not only did it crowd the path and bug Z every time he tried to mow (Literally. He kept being stung by its bees.) but it occupied the perfect location for a gifted Hinoki cypress we need move to make way for a house project. Incidentally, I transplanted a few of the raspberry’s suckers into the back border where another gifted evergreen, a cryptomeria this time, suddenly recently failed to thrive. 

What do you learn from your mistakes? Or do you get it right the first time?