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.

A Christmas Gift

A few days ago, a close friend came by to drop off a few Christmas gifts. She had intended to place the gifts on the front porch and leave – being mindful of social distancing – but when she came up to the house, she decided to knock. We hadn’t seen each other for over a year, and she hasn’t been to my house during daytime in more than 4 years, so the desire to take a moment for a greeting was strong. I put on a mask and opened the door to my wonderful friend. She’s not an emotional woman, but when we locked eyes we both started to cry with happiness. No hugging, keeping our distance, we stood outside talking, laughing, sharing and shivering with cold. She has been such a good friend for so many years that I can’t imagine (and don’t want to imagine) life without her. For more than 30 years we have shared successes, failures, deaths, births, marriages, traumas, and travel. Two of my favorite vacations were when I stayed at her family cabin on the Oregon coast. Her father built the cabin during World War 2, and she has vivid memories of evenings lit only by candlelight during that war.

My friend is a world traveler now that she is retired. She has been to every continent except Antarctica. She tries to take four large trips per year, so this year – 2020 – has been particularly difficult for her – time only for one trip before lockdown. (The same has been true for my spouse and I – we only managed to take one vacation before restrictions due to COVID were put in place.) But, our shared love of travel has always included an interest in visiting gardens throughout the world – whether the gardens are botanical, public, historic, demonstration, species, or the rare private garden opened for an individual tour (specifically for her when she visited Ethiopia years ago)- we have always shared a love of gardens! So, when my friend arrived at my door (after the four year gap), she took a look around and said, “This is a true gardener’s garden!”

Although we are in winter now, the following are pictures of the areas of my garden from seasons past that my friend has always enjoyed. Her visit was a very welcome gift in a very difficult season, and few gifts are as meaningful as that of friendship. I wish you a season of joy, of love, and of appreciation for the beauty that surrounds you. Peace.

My wisteria garden in May.
Oldest rhododendron in the garden, and an iris given to us over 20 years ago.
The fern garden waking up into spring.
Leucothoe fontanesiana, one of my friend’s favorite flower.

When a Gardener Travels

A year like no other is a good year to daydream, and these days I have been dreaming of past travels. My spouse and I had four vacations planned for 2020; only one came to fruition. A short trip to the Oregon Coast last January was all we were allowed before COVID restrictions set in. But, as we always do on vacation, we walked through every neighborhood, every forest, and down every town road we encountered. And during our walks, what we see in the moment brings to the surface something memorable we saw in the past. Once we reach our destination, the majority of our trips are experienced on foot – safest for all. When we are driving and I see something intriguing I will point it out to my spouse, and before you know it, we are headed in that direction – car and all. Once or twice we’ve ended up very, very close to a cliff. So, as I said, we experience other places on foot. And once we return home, my head is so filled with ideas that I can barely sleep for weeks.

The following are a few pictures of gardens and landscapes around the world. I hope you enjoy them!

Public garden, Kyoto
Charming succulent front garden, Kyoto
Oswald West State Park, Oregon
Church yard, Downe, England
Garden gate, York, England
York, England
Asters, my garden
Beautifully tended public garden in Washington state
The remarkable beauty of Hawaii, the Big Island
New life in a lava bed, Hawaii
Balboa Park, San Diego

In the Presence of Trees, Part 2

A Sense of Being

Do you remember the first time you entered a forest? Do you remember how you felt? Safe? Protected? In the company of something unique? One of the strongest, most detailed memories I have is of entering a small, local forest behind our neighborhood when I was young. My (younger) brother and I would walk up our street, turn the corner, and enter into another world – a quiet, peaceful world filled with secrets. Those summer days consisted of sitting on a mossy stump eating huckleberries, gathering fir cones (to us, every cone back then was called a pine cone), and telling stories. He had a wonderful imagination, even at a young age. As summers passed, we spent more time with our own friends and less time together, and eventually, the forest was cut down to make space for a cul-de-sac filled with new houses. But the memory of Forest has remained with me.

A few years ago, in a previous blog, I wrote an article titled “Does a Tree know its Age?”. In that article, I referenced research done by Suzanne Simard, PhD. with Pseudotsuga menziesii trees (Douglas fir). In her research, she uses the term “communication” to describe the interactions between some trees: a parent Doug fir and its seedlings, and Doug firs and birch trees. For example, a mother Doug fir shares nutrients with her offspring via their root systems and their shared fungal network. Research with birch trees and doug firs has shown that birch trees share carbon with doug firs in a natural forest setting, and that when foresters remove birch trees in the belief that removal would offer the firs better growing conditions, the firs actually suffered in response. (Dr. Simard is located at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver campus. Some of her work is easily found online).

It has been known for some time that plants respond to insect attack by flooding unharmed leaves or needles with chemicals that create unpleasant tastes and/or aromas to the insects. Plants also have the ability to create volatiles that will entice different insects to eat the attacking insect population. In addition, some plants are able to detect insect eggs that have been deposited on their leaves and respond with chemical changes that will either alert other insects to the presence of those eggs, or to kill the eggs themselves.

Interpreting such plant responses to stimuli as evidence of awareness and the ability to communicate is very controversial among some scientists. There exists a belief that without a central nervous system, without an organ like a brain, awareness simply cannot exist. These plant responses are seen as exclusively caused by chemical – electrical – reactions to stimuli. But I agree with Peter Godfrey-Smith who states in MetaZoa: “As plants lack nervous systems, they also lack the large-scale electrial patterns that a nervous system generates. Some caution is appropriate here, as plants do have a wealth of electrical activity, new forms of which are steadily uncovered. Further electro-botanical surprises may be waiting.”

I have always felt something unique while in the presence of trees – something above and beyond what their beauty and age offers. A communication with the surrounding world that I cannot yet understand. A sense of history, of life above and beyond the present, a sense of enduring space – this is what I feel in the presence of trees.