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 – It’s dream time

Originally published on January 23, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life

Insulted stipa
Insulted stipa

I know it’s too soon to be wishing for spring but when our first snowfall parked on my garden like a Mack truck and flattened everything standing, I suddenly lost patience with winter. Most of the seedheads that might have poked prettily out of the snow topped with hungry birds, crashed to the ground. Others are leaning like drunks. Now that the icy snow has melted off the golden tresses of the Miscanthus and Stipa grasses that I grow mainly for their winter looks, they remind me of a bad hair day after a really rough night. I guess I understand now why some people cut everything back in the fall. Why not if it isn’t going to be interesting over the winter after all?

I don’t really mean that. I’m just a little bitter. My garden, disheveled though it is, is still a bird magnet with plenty for them to eat. And if I squint, it’s winter-interesting enough. Certainly as much as a garden with naturalistic pretenses should be. It might look like it’s molting, but the light still stretches all the way across it to cast abstract-painting shadows. Frost still glitters like the holidays on stems, twigs and sideways seedheads. And it still pulls me outside when the weather isn’t awful [to smell the witch hazel if nothing else], which is a good thing because I need reminding that I have some serious dreaming to do before spring.

This is truly the only chance all year that we gardeners get to think long and hard about what we want to do differently in the garden without the danger of rashly trying to tackle those projects. And to do the kind of hard-core imagining that’s necessary, we need a great quantity of quality time to sit staring out of windows at a mind’s eye ideal vision of the garden, with books and magazines on our laps and a notebook by our sides. And we need to let loose. This is the time to dream big, as if money, labor and time weren’t obstacles. Reality comes later.

Every year I dream again about growing my own vegetables. This year feels a little different, though, because my chef is giving me cooking lessons and I have finally and fully embraced the awesomeness of kale. (The trick is to squeeze a tasty oily dressing into the raw leaves like wringing out a dishrag — no cooking involved. If it’s “massaging,” it’s the Swedish kind.) So I’m picturing a raised bed, slightly out of reach of the groundhog (who has previously killed my enthusiasm by eating my brassicas to nubs), planted with all my favorite veggies: leafy greens, Swiss chard, carrots and beets. I can picture a hoop frame over it covered in chicken wire to thwart the critters, and then what the British call “fleece” (we call it remay, which sounds less cozy) to keep mid-winter harvests from freezing.

One of my dream gardens on the cover of the August issue

I have gleaned other ideas (besides a more romantic vocabulary) from the pages of Gardens Illustrated. It’s a monthly British publication and by far the prettiest magazine in my lap stack. According to their wide-angle shots, wildly loose and thickly planted gardens like mine, which are not so rare in Europe, seem to benefit from a little crispness for contrast. And since I’m unlikely to faithfully maintain clipped topiary (a dream for another winter), I see my garden beds tidily edged against the lawn in flat stone wide enough (a good 18 to 24 inches would do) so that the plants can flop without getting under the wheels of the lawn mower. As luck would have it I’ve been allowed to lay claim to otherwise unwanted patio slates, which can potentially keep my garden from bleeding onto whatever’s left of the lawn — if I don’t use them up creating a gracious entry landing instead.

For the time being, while my garden is at its unloveliest, I’ll allow myself the luxury of imagining both and the raised vegetable bed, too. As long as the weather is too muddy, frigid, or foul for work, we gardeners should use the time wisely to ponder over our wish list instead and enjoy the thought that at least one of our garden dreams might rise to reality come spring.