Practicing My Aitches

When Eliza Doolittle, the Fair Lady herself, needed to practice her aitches, Professor Higgins gave her the exercise, “In Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly happen.”

When I need to practice my aitches, I wander my garden. My litany goes something this:

With hydrangea, hollyhocks, and hostas, hibiscus and honeysuckle happen (and heuchera, tooooo).

How did we end up with so many plants that start with the letter “H”? I only have one A (astilbe), two Bs (begonia and bee balm), and 3 Cs (coneflower, catnip, and chokecherry). 

But I have 6 aitches (or Hs, or even haitches, if you prefer). We used to have a seventh until the hops grew out of control and had to go.

These plants share almost nothing, in spite of starting with an aitch–it seems that letter of the alphabet provides plants for every occasion.

The honeysuckle vines grow up, up, up. They cover the pergola and appeal to ‘ummingbirds.

The heuchera, often called coral bells, come in different colors. It’s all about the foliage.

The hostas, in seemingly infinite variety, glow from the shady spots. They grow large and small, and cover the Pantone range of greens.

The hibiscus is almost sexual in its showiness. It has a high need for attention with blooms the size of a dinner plate.

The hollyhocks are old-fashioned and seem very feminine to me–tall spikes with ruffled skirts in unpredictable colors–some deep and saturated, some so subtle.

And the beloved hydrangeas. I think they are sort of out of favor right now among hip gardeners but I’ve never claimed to be hip. We have huge shrubs of different cultivars, as well as an oak leaf hydrangea, a climbing hydrangea vine, and a tree standard. I love them all.

I get confused about my H-plants on a regular basis. I want to refer to the one that grows on the pergola and I say hollyhock or pause a long time before I can come up with honeysuckle. 

Or I just ask my husband to water the one that starts with an aitch and he says, “That’s ‘ardly ‘elpful.”

Does your garden have a preponderance of plants that begin with an aitch? Or a P, per’aps?

An Early Summer Morning

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I’m not much of one for exercise. I know I should move more but tend not to.

When I come home from an early morning summer walk, though, I wonder why I don’t do this every day. A walk like this gives new meaning to that old song, “morning has broken, like the first morning.”

Shadows make me and my cat-who-believes-he-is- a-dog appear taller than we really are.

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We deliver maple syrup to my mother and her husband, who are already making pancakes—it is Sunday, after all. The cat opts to stay with them.

I can walk down the middle of the road if I want to, and I do, just because I can.

I see only three other people in the 3-plus miles I walk.

Our 80-something neighbor, the Energizer Bunny, out weeding her gardens and laughing at me for getting exercise in as artificial a way as taking a walk, when I, too, could be weeding.

The neighbors who make the rustic furniture, heading off to sell at the farmer’s market, where the rich folk from downstate buy expensive pieces for their summer camps.

The big guy walking his tiny dog and begging it to finish up so he can go back home for another cup of coffee.

I see a lot more animals than people.

The doe and her fawn way off at the edge of the field—I took a photo but it didn’t translate.

The bunnies who tear away from me, with their cottontails high.

The squirrels who are busy, following some imperative to mate or gather nuts or whatever squirrels do in their spare time.

I see the cardinals and the hummingbird.

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And these guys.

I hear all the other birds—the kingfisher and songbirds I can’t name. I follow the sound of tiny tapping to see the littlest woodpecker ever, getting its breakfast.

The only bird I don’t hear is the neighborhood rooster who cockle doodles his doo all day long but never, it seems, in the early morning.

The flowers, too, seem most striking early.

I know I will spend the day listening to children squeal, as they dunk themselves from a small sailboat or paddleboard. But they are, as yet, silent, still sleeping off the sugar-high hangover from one s’more too many.

Right now, the sailboats are at the moorings, the big beach towels are still dry and waiting on the line. No jet skis or deep-throated bass boats mar the quiet.

There are smells, too. The lake is low this year and, frankly, sort of whiffy. Someone mowed grass last night and the campfires still waft faint wood smoke.

The breeze is chilly this early but the sun is rising hot on my back.

Is there anything better than a quiet summer morning?

Nope, except, maybe, a summer sunset . . .

 

Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Beautiful

IMG_7805Isn’t she lovely? She and her sister blooms stop me in my tracks every day, in sheer admiration.

They look so out of place, these lush tropical-looking beauties. How does something this extravagant, this opulent, this voluptuous dare grow in Zone 4, in upstate New York, a few miles from Canada?

I don’t even remember where the plant came from but my guess is that my husband brought it home from the deep-discount rack at the big box hardware and garden center. He regularly brings home nearly-dead plants—waterlogged marigolds, root-bound daisies, dry-as-dust coleuses. Some we save, some are already dead and just don’t know it yet.

The hibiscus lived! It bloomed last summer and then looked really, really dead after our long, nasty, icy winter.

But like a colorful, vibrant phoenix, rising from ice instead of ashes, it came back.

I have to admit, as pretty as they are, I’m not entirely comfortable with the hibiscus blooms.

They’re so . . . showy.IMG_7745

They make me think of those girls and women I’ve known who love attention and love to show off their amazing looks. The ones who wear the low-cut tops over their fabulous figures and lots of make-up. They pluck their eyebrows all the time, and do their nails, and always look perfectly turned out for every occasion. They’re even pretty when they cry. I’ve always been suspicious (and envious!) of that.

I feel more comfortable with the geraniums and hostas in my little garden. Like me, they’re more traditional and homey. The hostas, in particular, are happy in the shade and don’t really need people focusing too much attention on them. That’s how I feel, too. I am uncomfortable with bright colors and with looking like I’m trying too hard.

I can relate to the hostas!

The only thing that reassures me about the flashy hibiscus is how short-lived its gaudy blooms are. One day, they’re all done up in total perfection—seductive and impossible to ignore. But the next day, each bloom has drooped and faded. Their petals look like a skirt that’s lost its starch or maybe a bouffant hair-do that’s come undone. Maybe they simply had too much fun on their one-day-long coming-out party and have a wicked, final hangover.

I tell myself that we, the hostas and I, hold up better in the long term. We’re not drop-dead gorgeous but we are sturdy and constant and slow to fade. The garden needs us.

In fact, I realize, my garden is big enough for, and benefits from, all of us—the stately and the understated, the hot and the cool, the extroverts and the introverts. I’ve also learned, across the years, that the prettiest can be the pleasantest, the flashy exterior can contain an interior of integrity and strength. After all, the hibiscus plant can withstand temperatures well below freezing and come back strong, even if its blooms don’t last for long.

So, I’m rethinking my anti-hibiscus prejudices and committing myself to a more open-minded garden policy. Bring on the showy and flashy, those that live fast and fade soon. We welcome you and your vibrancy to our understated world.

We balance, and complete, each other.IMG_7744

Quilting and Gardening: It’s All the Same to Me

I’ve heard it said that quilters are often drawn to gardening, as gardeners are to quilting.

Since I’ve been doing a LOT of both lately, I’ve had time to ponder this proposition and can see a million reasons why these two activities would appeal to the same people!

In fact, I’m a more experienced quilter than gardener and I’ve begun to see that, when I reach a problem in thinking about my gardens, I can draw on my quilter’s knowledge to help give me insight. I bet it works the other way around, too!

Here are my top five ways (out of a million) that quilting and gardening are aligned. Perhaps you can add others!

Planning—While there are improvisational ways to make a quilt, I think most quilters like the planning process, which draws on both the right and left sides of the brain. There’s a fair amount of math involved in quilt making and it was only when I started making quilts that I saw any point in having taken high school geometry.

Math isn’t so important in gardening but there are certainly rules to follow, in order to achieve success. I used to ignore that silly business about plants wanting full sun or shade, until the plants threatened to report me for torture. Similarly, those rules about growing zones really do provide valuable information!

Level of commitment—Both quilting and gardening demand quite a high level of commitment. Even a small quilt involves multiple stages and I’ve learned it’s possible to get hung up at any stage. Quilts do not finish themselves.

Along the same lines, you simply cannot have a garden without a gardener. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve been known to plant things and then walk away from them, and it never ends well.

Both quilting and gardening are easy to start and more difficult to see through to fruition. While quilters talk about UFOs (unfinished objects), gardeners are more likely to simply look at their weedy, undistinguished patches of earth and shake their heads sadly.

Patience and vision—Related to needing a fairly high level of commitment, both quilting and gardening demand real patience and the ability to envision how pieces will come together to form a whole. I suspect that folks who are exceedingly product-oriented have trouble as quilters and as gardeners.

When I start a quilt, I need to be aware that it will be months before I can really see the beauty in what I’m doing. I need to find pleasure in the doing because the start is often messy and uninspiring. I need to be able to see the finished project in my mind’s eye, to give me the trust that all the tedious early work is worthwhile.

It’s exactly the same with gardening. Nothing we plant really looks good at the start. I’ve spent days lately with crud under my fingernails and my flowers look small and insignificant. I tend to over-fill my perennial beds because I have trouble envisioning how big the plants will get in time. As I get slightly more experienced with both quilting and gardening, I get better at anticipating and seeing into the future, which helps me practice patience.

Color and Shape—Perhaps the most obvious similarity between quilting and gardening is the use of color and shapes to create a pleasing whole. I tend to like solid fabrics (or small prints that “read” as solid) in quilts, and get results from shading and use of lights and darks. This translates well to the garden, even though I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.

I like the way bright, saturated colors show up against dark backgrounds in my quilts and am trying to use bright plantings in shady areas—chartreuse foliage and hot orange and yellow flowers. I have definite preferences for color in both venues—you’ll find no purple in my quilts and the only purple in my gardens comes from one happy, healthy rhododendron that was here when we moved in and I haven’t the heart to uproot.

For quilters and gardeners, colors and shapes become the building blocks of their vision.

Individuality—One of the activities popular with quilt guilds is the so-called mystery quilt challenge. Quilters are told to buy, say, four fabrics in a color range of their choice. Then they are periodically given instructions of how to cut and join the fabrics. Eventually, the patterns develop and all the quilters bring their finished products together.

The amazing thing about this challenge is how different and individual the quilts are, even though they are made with the same design! The different choices people make in the fabrics create limitless possibilities in the finished quilts. You would get the same individual interpretation if you asked quilters to use the exact same fabrics but to choose their own quilt patterns.

Makers have always expressed their individuality through quilt design, so much so that certain quilts can be recognized as being made by certain quilters or by having been done in a particular region.

Gardening, too, offers the same endless possibilities with the same basic ingredients. We all use the same relatively small number of plants and flowers that work in our growing zone but the results are as varied as we are. If you and I both start with petunias and geraniums and creeping Jenny, my end product will look entirely different than yours!

So, quilters and gardeners are always achieving their own distinctive look, even while they carefully eye the work of others to provide new ideas. Whether I’m at a quilt show or walking through a new garden, I’m wondering what I can use of the ideas in front of me.

It occurs to me that the points I’m making about quilting and gardening may very well apply to other endeavors as well. Do you garden? How does it relate to your other artistic undertakings? Are there similarities? Do you learn how to approach one from the other? Do tell!

 

As I wait to hear from you, I’m going back to my quilting. Or my gardening. Or maybe both!