Gardening in the rain and dreaming about travel.

Sometimes common beliefs are misconceptions, sometimes overstated, sometimes plainly false – but sometimes, they are true. A common belief about Seattle is that we receive lots of rain. Buckets of rain, rivers of rain. And today, as I write this, we are receiving rain in huge amounts. We ended January three inches over our normal amount of rainfall. My garden – soggy, mushy, in a deep sleep – has soaked up so much rain that the soil is wet four inches deep. And as our soil is primarily sand (even after 30 years of mulching/composting/enhancing), that is quite an accomplishment. All six rain barrels are full, the pond is close to over-flowing, the fish are unusually active for this time of year, and the neighborhood raccoon appears to tip-toe over the beds to avoid muddy paws. So, during these days of incessant rain when gardening is neither practical nor beneficial, I start to daydream. And my favorite daydreams involve travel.

My spouse and I had planned to spend two months in the UK last year but COVID-19 made that impossible. He has family ties in Liverpool and the surrounding area and we planned to spend two weeks in that lively city. I wanted to return to Hadrian’s Wall, Haydon Bridge, and surrounding areas for more hiking. But both of us wanted to return to Kew Royal Botanical Gardens to spend at least one week getting to know that magical place on a deeper level.

On the Cotswold trail.

After the UK, we had planned to spend time in eastern Washington. Four years ago we visited Spokane and enjoyed their city-wide garden tour. I was impressed with the beauty, creativity, and enormous variety of gardening styles and plants I saw during the day-long tour. Most enjoyable was the time the hosting gardeners spent answering questions, sharing ideas and tips, and talking about our favorite plants.

Early autumn in Spokane, Washington.

We had planned to return to Smith Rock area in Oregon. My spouse and I hiked that area years ago and were impressed with its rugged, austere beauty.

Hot, dry conditions but beautiful nonetheless. And nice to be away from rain for awhile!

And last, I have visited San Diego three times in the past but my spouse has only visited once for a short time. I had planned to take him with me on my biennial visit. That was cancelled, also. But this year, who knows? We may be able to travel again – vaccinated, masked, and social distancing all the way. I’ll enjoy it in any form.

View from a balcony in Balboa Park.
Cactus Garden, Balboa Park.

I wish you interesting travels, beautiful daydreams, and a gardening season full of adventure. Just hang on – life always gets better!

My daughter’s kitten, hanging on to the window screen.

Conifer Time

In a winter garden of dormant life, the conifer is king. Color, shape, texture, form – all contribute to a welcome variety of sights in a season of denuded branches, bare soil, and recurved leaves.

My little Pinus mugo, ‘Carsten’s Wintergold”, enjoying a foggy morning.
Blue is a welcome color on gray winter days. From the Japanese Garden, Washington Park Arboretum.
Pinus schwerini, ‘Wiethorst’, surrounded by Galtheria procumbens, ‘Wintergreen’ (my garden).
Chamaecyparis obtusa, ‘Baldwin’s Variegata’, variegated cypress (my garden).
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana glauca, ‘Barry’s Silver’, Blue Lawson Cypress (my garden).
One of my favorite conifers, Cryptomeria japonica, ‘Sekkan-Sugi’, Golden Japanese cedar (my garden).
Thujopsis dolabrata ‘Nana’, variegated Japanese Staghorn cedar (my garden).

Conifers, dwarf or full-size, create important structure in any garden, offer protection for wildlife, and offer beauty that changes with each season. What’s not to love about conifers?

A Gardener’s thoughts on Genuine Hope

I watched the Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris this morning.  Glued to my t.v., I wanted to see as much as possible so I put my phone aside.  Joseph Biden.  Kamala Harris.  Biden’s Inaugural Address came from his heart and spoke with sincerity and true patriotism about the promise that this country was founded upon.  That promise, after over 200 years, still has not been realized in totality.  But this morning, after listening to Biden’s speech, after watching Kamala Harris being sworn into the office of the Vice President by a Latina Supreme Court Justice, I felt Hope!  For the first time in many years, I felt Hope. 

I am not religious.  I am not Catholic, nor am I Christian. (My over-all experience with Christians has been horrific, not just for me but for my family.)  But as I listened to Joe Biden, and as I remembered all that I have learned of him over many years, I considered a possibility that just a few years ago I would have considered improbable.  Biden’s deep, all-embracing faith is the foundation of his life – his principles, his reasoning, and the base of his actions.  He has always appeared kind, considerate, genuine, and thoughtful if not always socially graceful.  Gifted and genuine. A man of God.

When I was 17, I spent three weeks working with seasonal workers in the Yakima Valley of Washington state.   They asked us to paint their beloved church, to repair some walkways to the church, and to do some gardening and landscaping around the lovely, small building.  Why?  They were busy in the fields – dawn to dusk – but their church was the center of their lives.  No time to do repairs.  We were happy to help despite our self-conscious, insecure, shy teen selves.  We made mistakes and felt like idiots.  But they appreciated our efforts, our small successes, and treated us like loved family members.  A deeply religious community of people who traveled from (huge) farm to farm just to live.  Just to survive. One of the most vivid memories I have is of picketing outside a large chain grocery store in that valley to bring attention to the conditions that seasonal farm workers experienced daily.  Most shoppers ignored us, but one middle-aged couple stopped to talk to our group before entering the store, and asked us “What’s the problem?”  We explained what we were trying to accomplish and explained that the grapes being sold in the store were representative of the inequity and poor working conditions we were protesting.  The couple entered the store to shop and returned shortly with their bags of groceries.  They then stood in front of our group, reached into a paper bag, took out a bunch of grapes, and began to throw grapes at us.  They laughed.  We were silent.  When the couple tired of teasing us (and ran out of grapes), they turned and walked away.

When I read today that Biden fired Peter Robb, trump’s National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel, I cried with joy.  And cried with exhaustion, elation, and relief.  Also today, Biden fired Michael Pack (head of US Agency for Global Media), and Kathleen Kraninger (director of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).  Lots of tears of joy and relief today.  And I wondered– is this really the beginning of true, substantial change?   Has the United States of America really taken a strong, confident step towards the promise written into our constitution and away from corruption?  I believe so.  I hope I am right.

President Biden isn’t perfect.  By no means is he without flaws.  But unless I am completely and thoroughly wrong, he is the person we need Right Now. He is as close to perfect for the times as anyone I can think of – experience, compassion, thoughtful, pragmatic, and open to change.  President Biden and Vice President Harris will need our help to rebuild this country.  The past four – five years have been horrendous. They are over for most of us but not for all.  Those who don’t support these changes will need our help in understanding this promise, also. Now we are asked to move forward, to act upon the ideals contained within the poem “The Hill We Climb”, written by Amanda Gorman.  The ideals contained within Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech. The ideals that Barack Obama spoke of in his inaugural address. These ideals, Biden spoke of this morning. Hope is painful, encouraging, frightening, and inspirational.  But more than all that, more than any description I can think of, hope is courageous.  We can do this.

I wish you faith, strength, hope, and courage.

A Winter Garden rescues the Gardener

A winter garden has an austere, understated quality enhanced by dim light and intermittent color. Beauty is present, of course, but not as prominent as in the other three gardening seasons. And this winter, only just begun, has taken a hard turn and run smack into worry. Last week my daughter was diagnosed with COVID. They work in a large hospital, in a department of small space with a large staff, and although they often work in a sterile environment in multiple layers of sterile clothing (gloves, masks, covers for shoes, hair, etc), COVID still found its way in. Multiple people in the department have been diagnosed with the virus within the past six months. It’s difficult to avoid. My daughter has been very careful in life outside of work – masked, social distancing, avoiding places with crowds, video chatting instead of in-person get-togethers – but COVID found them nonetheless. To help our daughter get though this, my spouse and I have been shopping and cooking for them, and making frequent deliveries to their apartment. Still, the worry and fear that arises when your child is ill remains. We try to make our daily video chats bright and humorous, but that fear is ever-present.

To keep myself busy and to avoid becoming an overly attentive (aka irritating) parent, I’ve turned my enormous amount of extra energy to the garden. And, it’s looking tended. Very tended. Not much more to do at this point, so I have turned my attention to container gardening. Specifically, I’ve added to our succulent collection. My spouse is intrigued by these unusual and sometimes odd plants, and his interest in them offers us something benign to focus on. It helps for a moment, at least. And I’ve made three small succulent container gardens for our daughter which she enjoys tending.

Five year old Crassula in a talavera container.
My spouse painted the purple container. All very young plants.
A variety of Crassulas with an young Aeonium and Sedum.
My daughter’s cat is staying with us while they recovers. He runs to my phone when he hears us chatting.
The three of us coming home from a wedding a few years ago.

We have always been a close, loving family and I consider us very fortunate. Our daugher has excellent health insurance, friends and family who offer love and support, and I am confident that the virus will run its course with no lingering damage. We are very mindful of how fortunate we are. We are, also, mindful of the thousands of people who have succumb to this awful virus, of the loss, of the broken families. And the feelings of helplessness.

At this time, we are busy planning a summer vacation to the Olympic National Forest, and to places our daughter hasn’t yet visited. But most of all, we look forward to the time when they can come home for a visit, for a walk through the garden, for summer evenings watching the sunset from the front yard, and being together. It’s been a long year already. Too long.

Neighborhood Gardens, Part 2

Sometimes getting away is crucial for mental health. Leaving behind the world for a moment, even for only the time involved in taking a walk, can bring peace and clearer thoughts. The events in the Capitol Building in DC on the 6th of this month were overwhelming, infuriating, steeped in racism and ignorance, profoundly dangerous, and filled with hate. Our country has been awash in hateful words, acts, and intentions for many, many years. At times it seems like nothing will bring about improvement, and that the only change we see is in method. The actors are the same, the words are the same, the intent is the same. Hate.

I took a long walk to get away for a moment. To think. To remind myself that there is beauty in our country. In life.

There is some hope to be found. Someday we will practice love instead of hate.

Forgiving Hate

A few years ago, my family and I attended a wedding of someone we feel very close to and love deeply. The young bride has been an important part of our lives for many years of her childhood and teen years. We have always tried to keep in touch with her – through her years in university, travels, and law school – and our family has countless wonderful memories of the times she and her sister spent with us.

The setting for her wedding was lovely – an outdoor terrace over-looking the beautiful city skyline, decorated with gorgeous, unique flower arrangements in oranges, white, and green. I’ve always associated these colors with the city of San Diego. Our bride radiated graceful happiness and beauty. The groom looked proud and relaxed, and very happy. I watched the large crowd of friends and family as they assembled on the terrace, and was especially moved by the happiness and love so evident on everyone’s faces. We settled in and the ceremony began. The processional was elegant and deeply moving. The vows exchanged were charming, filled with love and humor, and filled with the beauty of promise and commitment. I heard very quiet murmurs of appreciation of the vows and what they pledged for a lifetime. I thought about the vows my spouse and I made many years ago. Overall, the ceremony was memorable.

After the ceremony and congratulations, the three of us left the crowd and headed back to our hotel. We were quiet as we walked along the waterfront – all of us slightly unnerved by the address the officient gave. His talk began in a thoughtful manner but soon over-emphasized the amount of patience required by marriage. I heard a few snickers from the people in the rows behind me. From there his oration devolved into an uncomfortable complaint about the people he detests. My daughter and I looked at each other in confusion. Someone behind us uttered an almost inaudible “What?” under their breath. My spouse shifted in his seat and looked away, out over the water. On and on continued the complaint about those the officient detests as if he was settling a score. Eventually he explained that those people he detests he actually loves because of Agape. The people behind us murmured with a disquieted tone.

At dinner much later that evening, my daughter said, “That doesn’t speak highly of marriage”. I agreed. I asked my spouse for his thoughts and he said, “Well, that’s him”. But most of all, we agreed that talking about the people one detests in a wedding ceremony was self-centered, self-serving and inappropriate. I have never heard an officient talk about hate or detesting people in a wedding ceremony. We felt bad for the couple, and hoped that that part of their wedding ceremony would be forgotten. In our minds, to use a wedding ceremony to settle a score is unfair and cowardly.

The most important aspect I have learned in my marriage is of forgiveness – of my spouse and myself. We make mistakes. All humans make mistakes. It is in our nature. What is important to remember in a marriage, in fact in most relationships, is that sometimes how we feel should be kept to ourself. There will always be someone we dislike, someone we struggle to forgive. But to use a public event dedicated to a young couple’s future to air ones’ grievances that have nothing to do with that couple is simply awful.

I don’t think I have ever hated anyone in my life. I have encountered people I don’t trust, people I don’t respect, and folks I really don’t like, but I’ve never reached the level of hate. But if I ever do reach that point, I hope I will have the self-control to keep it to myself. Self-control is something our country has been short on for the past four years. Many people have been hurt by hate, many people have been afraid for themselves, family, or friends because of hate. Hate always harms not only the recipient but also the dispatcher of hate. The energy required to hate overwhelms all involved. And it is a profound waste of energy. What I would say to anyone who genuinely hates someone is this: be kind to yourself, save your energy and look for something positive, one good quality, in the object of your hate. You may be surprised at the results.

And – you will feel better!

Costa Rica, Part 1

In 2006, I had the great fortune to travel to Costa Rica with my daughter’s fourth grade class. Our group spent 15 days in this friendly, stunningly beautiful country, including a three-night stay with a multigenerational family on their small farm. The primary focus of the trip was to teach the children about the importance of conservation of all aspects of the natural world. On a personal note, the highlight of the trip was our stay on the small island of Parismina where leatherback turtles come onshore to lay their eggs. In small groups of 5 people, and beginning at midnight, we were allowed to enter the beach area where the turtles were laying their eggs over many days and hours. We were not allowed to photograph the turtles (light is disruptive to them during the egg-laying process). As these animals are so large, their trails from the ocean to their nesting sites remain for days after they have returned to the ocean. A picture of one of the trails follows. Of all the sights and sounds I encountered while in Costa Rica, the experience of watching a leatherback turtle come up from the water, slowly pull herself on land to her nesting site, lay her eggs, and return to the water exhausted and spent, has remained the most moving for me.

The following are a few pictures I took while there. I apologize for the quality of the pictures – often I was busy watching my group of kids while trying to take a few shots – but these will give you an idea of the magnificent variety of life in this beautiful, peaceful country. Enjoy!

Grounds of our hotel in Parismina
The cabin my daughter and I shared with another family.
Remains of the trail made by a huge leatherback turtle from the ocean to her nesting site and back home to the ocean.
I can’t claim credit for this gorgeous photo. One of the other parents took this shot from our boat from Parismina back to the mainland.
Another of my blurry photos. This little howler monkey had as much fun watching our kids as they did watching him. Incredibly loud call!
A stick bug. Our guide enjoyed watching our children’s amazement at the huge variety of bugs of his country.
The could forest of Monteverde. I instinctively ducked my head as we entered the forest even though the canopy was many, many feet above. The transition of light to darkness upon entering the forest is similar to entering a dark road tunnel on a sunny day.

I hope you have the opportunity to visit this truly impressive, warm-hearted country. It is beautiful.

January – Time to plan the Summer Garden!

Every gardener I know starts to get restless after a couple weeks of winter. The call of the soil, the lure of green growing things, and the need for outside time is strong this time of year. Especially here in the Pacific Northwest where our winter days are short, dark, and stormy (although those days have their own beauty). And with travel restrictions in place, a winter vacation seems impossible this year. Besides, hiking, neighborhood walks, and beachcombing only does so-much. So, there are few better uses of this gardener’s time than to Plan the Summer Garden!

Last summer I cut back on growing vegetables because I was worried about water usage. This is an issue I have struggled with for years, and to date have not resolved my concerns completely. We have 6 rain barrels and I use that water for ornamentals in-ground and for container gardens. But as Seattle summers can be very long and dry, and our region now is drought-prone, these large capacity barrels are often emptied by the end of July or mid-August at the latest. Our dry summers often extend into late September. Vegetables use a lot of water no matter the amount of mulch covering the beds, and city water is expensive and finite. But, I did manage to grow a good crop of onions, potatoes, carrots, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and tomatoes. Also, I grew a few edible flowers which the neighborhood rabbit apparently enjoyed. My spouse grew peas, beans, and gorgeous climbing nasturtiums. All grown in raised beds where I can control soil conditions and keep water-holding capacity high.

This summer, depending upon long-term weather forecasts, I will probably grow a limited amount of food. But if the long-term precipitation forecast looks good, then Watch Out Garden – here I come! However, in the meantime, planning and perusing plant and seed catalogs will have to do.

A few of the very tasty onions we grew last summer.

Colors of a Storm

Walking through the garden after an early morning rain storm I find dark, water-soaked soil beneath the mulch. The dusted, spent days of summer, hot and dry as a prairie, are long forgiven. A break in cloud cover pierces the garden with pale, white intensity. Subtle colors break through the curtains of gray and compete for the attention of anyone willing to notice. A bright blue Picea pungens, ‘Baby Blue Eyes’, sparkles with rain drops clinging to its needles. A golden Cryptomeria japonica, ‘Sekkan-Sugi’ glows in the pale light of a winter sun. Dried, beige blades of Little Blue Stem, Schizachyrium scoparium, sway in unison in the delicate breeze. Birds still hop through this stand, looking for seed.

Charcoal gray clouds begin a slow, lumbering roll towards the garden and threaten its occupants like a bully on a playground. But like so many bullies, the clouds threaten and pose but deliver nothing. Soon, a bright blue line of sharp winter sky pushes through the clouds – defiant and proud to be seen. It is a beautiful sight. Here for only a moment, soon pushed away by thundering clouds, and now rain returns. Cold, deep, persistent rain. It feels raw upon the skin.

Time for me to go inside. Enough rain for one short day. Long and rugged as winter seems, it often ends with a whisper and a sweet scent of promise. And new colors will flower – all in good time.

Happy in Seattle – a Gardener’s Take on Gray

A recent article in a local newspaper stated that a survey taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in mid-November of this year found Seattle to be the saddest major metro area in the country. Over half the population in the Seattle area reported feeling “depressed”, most reported feeling “down”, and many others reported feeling “hopeless”. The people surveyed were age 18 or older. While much of the negative outlook was attributed to the pandemic and its on-going consequences, our weather at this time of year was also mentioned as a contributing factor to the gloomy attitude.

Our late autumn through winter weather – often described as dull, miserable, cold, wet, depressing, gray, incessant, relentless, really gray, and very gray – can sometimes be, yes, gray. Cloud cover that arrives from the Pacific Ocean or Canada often hangs low in the sky and thoroughly obscures the stunning blue of our winter skies. Our damp coldness is tough to deal with and multiple layers of clothing and rain gear are required when working outside for extended periods of time, which this gardener frequently does. More than once, my rain gear has developed a leak (down the back, under the arms, around the waist, etc.) and when that cold rain reaches warm skin my work speeds way up. I sympathize with folks who sincerely detest this weather. It can be very uncomfortable and oppressive. And so very gray.

A bit of fog with our gray.
Gray can be bright at times.

But, as a life-long Seattleite, I know that blue will follow gray. It always does.

The beginning

And when blue skies overtake gray clouds, I know of no more beautiful place to live than here in Seattle. Just a little faith in blue will warm your soul – and your hands.

Something to cheer about.

Each season has its own beauty – some just require a little more work to find that beauty than others. But it’s there. Take a moment to look.

Winter sunset from my front yard.