Lessons from My Garden

 

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I ache all over.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately, and the better part of the last two two days, outside trying to bring some sense of order to our yard and gardens.

The temperature has been in the 60s (call it 18 celsius) and it’s been sunny, so it’s been a delight to be outdoors. But it’s hard work, is yard work. And since my husband had yet another ankle surgery last month, a lot of it is falling to me.

I learn, or re-learn, many lessons in these days of April.

  • This isn’t yet a lovely time of year. It has its moments and, all in all, it’s better than February, but April is pretty chilly, quite windy, and way too wet.
  • Living on a lake has its downside. Ever since we had to leave our home for 6 weeks several years ago, when Lake Champlain flooded and we could only get in the house by wearing chest waders, we have had a healthy, nervous respect for the lake in April. It’s high right now, into flood stage, but not yet really a problem . . . knock wood.
  • I now know where I planted my mother’s irises. We sold her place late last fall and I had to rush to dig up the irises and bring them here. And I had no idea where I put them! Now I know and I’m thrilled to see them. It’s good to have something new, and old, to look forward to.
  • All the leaves from upstate New York, most from Vermont, and quite a few from Canada blow in every late fall and form dense, thick mats on our lawn. The tops look dry but underneath they’re soaked and in spots still frozen. The Canadian encroachers bother me most and I think maybe we should build a wall.
  • The gym didn’t do me much good at all. I dutifully went, all winter long, and sweated on the treadmill and that elliptical thingy, and am still knackered after two hours raking.
  • The corollary to which is: the best overall way to stay fit is to do yard work.
  • I did a wretchedly bad job, just really lazy, of cleaning up the gardens last autumn, which is proof of another pivotal lesson of life: You can pay now or you can pay later.
  • I’ve been reminded that little things offer huge rewards after winter—that one golden crocus, the old cats that act like kittens again and zoom up trees, the bits of chartreuse that are thriving under the frozen mat of dead leaves—it’s that color that happens only in early spring and is so fleeting and perfect.
  • And I’ve learned, again, the pleasure of the bone-deep tiredness that comes from working outside, to care for our bit of Earth.

What lessons does your garden have to teach?

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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?

Grousing in the Garden

I didn’t want to write this post. Really, I didn’t. 

I’ve resisted as long as I could and they’ve just worn me down with their whining and nagging and moaning.

My flowers are furious; They look pretty and dainty and harmless . . . don’t be fooled. They are relentless. 

They demand equal time! They point out that everybody else’s flowers have been featured on the internet, that they are every bit as attractive, and, dammit, they want their moment in the spotlight. 

The irises are irate.

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The viburnum are threatening violence.

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The lilies of the valley lament and lament and lament. All those tiny little voices, lamenting. Oy.

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The hostas are downright hostile.

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Catnip is caterwauling, under its protective armor to keep the cats from nipping it down to nothingness.

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Peonies are pouting, again. They’re not at their best yet but they remember a successful protest from years ago, and they are emboldened.

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So, my apologies for a post full of familiar flowers. I don’t even know all their names and it occurs to me that some may be weeds. I simply don’t care anymore. I just want them to stop their belly aching!

 And please, whatever you do, don’t tell them they’re pretty! 

Autumn, Come She Will

Soupy. Steamy. Sweaty. Summer.

It’s all those things right now in upstate New York. Summer blazes on, with little rain and high humidity.

And yet, when I least expect it, when I’m wearing my sun visor and wiping the “dew” off my face, autumn sneaks up on me.

She is quiet, faint, just a hint of a ghost of a wraith but I know she’s there.

She gets close and whispers her cool breath in my ear. I whip my head around, to get a better look, and blush when I find only summer there. I was hoping it was autumn . . .

I’m not the only one autumn makes blush.

Autumn seduces me, energizes me, makes me feel alive. My blood sings and fizzes like champagne when autumn comes to me.

Again, I’m not the only one who is susceptible to her charms; she is profligate with her attentions. She beguiles the geese to start their noisy journey. She provides the nudge that makes the squirrels so intent on hunting and gathering that they forget to look both ways when they cross the road. All living things respond to autumn.

Her invigorating imperative affects people like me, and maybe you, people who live in cooler climates and who love to make things. We feel the impulse to prepare for winter making and to hunker down in our homes.

Because my main locus for taking photos of vintage linens for Etsy is my glassed-in porch and because my glassed-in porch is not winterized and gets REALLY cold in the winter, I will spend autumn busily taking photos, getting things ready while I can.

I also baste quilts at the big table on the glassed-in porch so I will soon be doing this job I loathe so I can do the part I love, hand quilting, all winter.

I want my home to be as clean and fresh as autumn feels. I want the garden to sleep well and come to spring renewed and refreshed. I want to bring the color of the maple trees and late fall sun to handwovens.

Autumn is a demanding mistress, but she’s worth it.

I know she’s coming, autumn is.

I love you, autumn. I’ll be ready for you. Don’t make me wait too long . . .


*This photo makes me think of a wonderful book, C D B!, by William Steig. According to Steig, the full caption for the photo should be “C D B? D B S A BZ B.” Can you crack the code?

A Happy Ending, in the Garden

I came late to gardening, only really getting started in the last dozen years or so.

There was no real family tradition of growing flowers at my house or, if there was one, I was oblivious.

My husband and I have learned mostly by trial and error . . . lots of trials, lots and lots of errors. But we had some successes and were pleased.

Then, five years ago, our area was hit by flooding. The lake we live on reached record-high water levels and stayed there for 6 weeks. (As you know, you can click on the small photos to see more detail)

Our lawns and gardens were covered in water and sludge for weeks, and everything died.

Everything died.

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We had a tabula rasa. A nasty, brown blank slate.

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So, you will understand the awe I feel now, all spring and summer, when beauty happens here. I am dumbstruck that we have accomplished so much, with so little knowledge but hard work and patience.

The flowers amaze me, enthrall me.

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This pergola stands where the dirt was in the previous photo. It’s now blanketed in honeysuckle and wisteria.

In spite of all this beauty, only one part of the garden matters to some people.

We grow catnip under the protective cover of staked wire baskets so “some people” won’t rip it out by the roots and eviscerate the little plants.

They get drunk on catnip, I find my intoxication elsewhere.

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