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?

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 – garden on …

… with colorful shrubs for fall. Originally published in East Bay Life, October 31, 2012.

It breaks my heart to dismantle any part of the garden that’s still being used by pollinators and visited by birds but a few days ago I realized I had to cut some stuff down after all just to get a better view of other stuff I planted especially for fall color. And to tell the truth, even though there have still been a few monarchs bopping around, I’m relieved to see the Verbena bonariensis go, and the goldfinch will just have to make due with fewer black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) seedheads to snack on because I had way too many.

Besides, they stole my focus from a pretty black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa). It only has a few bright-red eye-candy leaves left but plenty of shiny black berries dangling like temptation. The birds will eat them only after they’ve gobbled up everything tastier, which means I should get to enjoy them for a couple more months at least. It’s a pretty great native shrub (happy to grow a gangly 3-6’ tall in full sun to partial shade, and dry or boggy soil) and as far as I can tell from my walks around town in spring when its rose-y white flowers are out, and now when it’s bedecked in fruit, it’s an underused one. Don’t let the common name put you off. It’s only called chokeberry because they’re tart, not because they cause asphyxiation. As a matter of fact, they’re a healthy snack, high in anti-oxidants and supposedly super tasty baked in muffins or pie or processed, with plenty of sugar no doubt, into jam.

I might have to add moving my Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’) to my spring to-do list because I didn’t realize that, in my garden, it might actually stay the 2’ dwarf it’s meant to be. (Everything grows bigger and better at Blithewold. I try not to take it personally.) If Little Henry wasn’t crammed behind a still-blooming dahlia and the 3’ tall beebalm that I planted more for its winter-interesting seedheads than its summer flowers, I would be held in thrall by its translucent red autumn blaze backlit by a slanted sun right this minute. Come to think of it, I don’t remember having a very good view of its drooping flower sausages in early summer either. And it’s another terrific native shrub that should be at least as common in foundation plantings as that ubiquitous invasive thug, burning bush (Euonymus alatus), but isn’t. The cultivar ‘Henry’s Garnet’ grows a little taller and its fall color is just as dazzling as the gem it’s named for. Give either full sun to partial shade and moist soil if you have it, and transplant some of their tightly colonizing suckers whenever you have another fall-color hole to fill.

I already moved my Fothergilla gardenii ‘Blue Mist’ where I can see it color up from this very chair but I also planted a huge view-obliterating four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa) right next to it for the hummingbirds. Although my fingers are crossed for one more hummer to stop through, I’m also secretly hoping that we get another frost soon that will spur me into digging the four o’clock up for winter storage and cause the fothergilla to begin its shift to yellow-orange-red from its summer color of foggy-blue-teal-green. I wonder why I don’t see more of this little shrub around too. It flowers best (little greenish-while bottle brushes before the leaves come out in spring) in full sun but doesn’t mind a little shade and average, everyday soil.

It’s hard enough for me to let go of the garden at the end of the season that I’ve decided just this minute to plant (next spring) a few more fall colorful shrubs at regular intervals throughout. I’ll need a Chinese indigo (Indigofera kirilowii), which turns bright orange yellow. And Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Little Honey’, which starts the summer in a yellow blaze and ends it purple-red. Because tidying and opening the views to plants like these might just help me keep the garden from looking like I let it go.

Fall is

Copper chain of Virginia creeperIf spring is green-gold with emeralds, summer platinum and winter onyx set in silver then fall is a tarnished copper alloy chain that leaves a smudge on your neck. (But when you spotted it in the junkstore jewelry case, you had to have it.) It’s garnets, amber, carnelian and moss agate.

It’s semi-precious and affordable.

Carnelian (or the thornless blackberry)moss agatethe restgarnet dogwood

Fall is the people’s season. It’s the view that belongs to everyone. It’s socialized medicine and the pursuit of happiness. Fall has the sweet smell of a well-deserved earthly rest and the sound of desperate crickets in love (slow it down to hear the rhythm). Fall is damp socks and asthma and a really red dripping nose. It’s procrastination. A Fingersnap. A murder mystery. Black and brown dogs. A dream-date.

A Nino asleep on the couch

Fall is poetic license and a big cup of tea with honey.

What is it to you?