Nurturing Warm Garden Friendships

Planting a garden of hope in Alaska

Befriending The Garden

As the days begin to warm up, it’s hard to stay out of the garden. Even on busy days, I find myself sneaking out for a quick putter, putting off even important tasks for a lovely few minutes of plant primping. It’s been surprisingly dry and windy for April so I’m also deep-watering the beds and troughs as well as pots and flats of plants ready for transplanting. Several passersby expressed surprise to see me watering in April but the soil is already as dry as it usually would be in mid May, which is to say, very dry. By watering well now and spreading a comforting mulch of compost and cow manure, I’m hoping to encourage deep rooting and help the soil retain as much moisture as possible. Though snowpack along the West Coast is ample in the North and near normal in Oregon, California and Eastern parts of Cascadia look to be in for another hot, dry summer. Even if it turns out to be another cold, dry summer along the coast, it’s wise to start things off as well as possible.

The prospect of hot and dry is a bit difficult to imagine right now, as yet another frosty April morning has spangled rooftops and cars with icy frosting. Though the night temperature was nominally in the mid 30s, temperature gauges are set at various heights above the ground, and even a few feet of elevation can mean the difference of several degrees, since cold air sinks. I’m keeping my eye on night temperatures, as they affect soil temps as much or more than daytime temps. The frosty mornings have set my planting plans back a bit but so far, my peas and sweet-peas are flourishing in large pots and seem undaunted by chilly nights. I really can’t complain (although I seem to be): my friend Les is still dealing with snow and all he can plant is hope.

Befriending

Though we live a thousand miles apart, Les and I have been garden friends for decades. We have quite a few interest in common, but we mostly correspond about our gardens, swapping pictures and stories about new beds and benches or fences as well as plants. Years ago, he wintered over anything that might not withstand the bitter Alaskan temperatures in an insulated pit, which he later abandoned after finding his plants nibbled and the pit full of a squirrel’s food trove, including psychedelic mushrooms. Alaska, it’s different. By this time of year, Les has covered all surfaces in the kitchen with seed trays and plant starts, including the oven racks. It takes an enormous amount of preparation, but his garden is truly incredibly beautiful in its short season, a miracle of loveliness from June through August. Then, it snows. Boom.

Over time, I realized that although Les is indeed a horthead who adores plants, he has a much deeper relationship with his garden. In fact, he befriends it. All those handsome gates and fences and benches are not just ornaments but are loving gifts to the garden, given as one might present an irresistibly ideal gift to a beloved friend. I’ve thought about that often as I tend my soil, which is as precious to me as my own dear plants. I want the best for both the soil and the plants, and for the garden itself, for any well loved garden becomes an entity and has a distinctive self.

Intimacy And Trust

I recently read a fascinating reflection that called out the huge social shifts that have redefined friendship in modern times. The ancients valued friendship highly, naming ‘intimacy, trust, commitment and loyalty’ as key attributes. Many contemporary relationships are what our ancestors might have termed mere or even warm acquaintance, perfectly suitable for co-workers or associates of various kinds, but not deep enough to merit the term ‘true friendship’. It made me smile to recognize that I count my cat and my garden among my ‘true friends’, as well as some actual people. All of them have shared vertiginous rollercoaster life events, mine and their own, over the years. That definitely makes for trust. Sharing painful and heartbreaking situations makes for strong bonds of intimacy as well; friends who understand and empathize without judgment are priceless.

Over the years, I’ve easily felt as much loyalty and commitment to and from my garden as from any of my friends, dear as they are. Various studies show that cats and other pets develop more character and personality when treated as family members, and I would venture to say that our gardens do as well. Certainly the ambiance of a garden reflects the way it is perceived and cared for. Strolling through a manicured landscape rarely offers the kind of experience found in visiting gardens that are loved and cherished. Gardens that are loved have a decidedly positive, pleasant atmosphere, differing in kind but not in quality. One may feel cheerful, another peaceful, but all beloved gardens have a strong character, and not necessarily that of the current gardener, as old gardens can outlast their makers, sometimes by centuries, developing character as key plants develop.

Peace And Comfort And Hope

The lure of the garden is especially strong these days, when the world is still reeling from the ongoing shocks of Covid19 and endlessly exposed inequities, racism, corporate greed and filthy politics. It’s a privilege and a blessing to be able to turn away from dire news reports to spread compost and plant peas. Even a little while spent sowing seeds feels peaceful. Potting up runaway strawberries lacing through a bed and setting free their crowded companions feels comforting. Seeing cuttings struck last fall springing into new life feels hopeful. Puttering among my plants, watching them awaken and stretch and put on new growth feels like time spent with good friends; refreshing, relaxing, and quietly joyful. As I nurture my garden, it nurtures me in turn, over and over, without fail. Surely there’s no better definition of a true friendship.

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Warming Up For Spring

Sheep pretending to be Easter eggs (the farmer says that the dyes are harmless)

When Gardening Is A Pain

This weekend, I joyfully took possession of a new-to-me P-Patch, a modest plot in a community garden just a few blocks from my home. A recent reorganization of the garden to a more collaborative, cooperative model opened up over a dozen beds to new people, including me. My plot of about 200 square feet had been badly compressed by piles of building materials, so I spent a few happy hours going over the soil with a garden fork, gently loosening the soil without turning it over. Like tilling, turning the soil releases stored carbon and brings nutrients to the surface inches, where they are quickly devoured by plant roots, leaving soil depleted. Opening the soil loosens it without the havoc of tilling, preparing a more hospitable environment for plants and soil dwellers, from worms to friendly fungi and bacteria.

My fork work exposed a handful of small potatoes and a dearth of worms. Obviously, the soil can use some feeding before anything gets planted, so I hauled and spread ten barrowloads of compost, which amounted to a layer several inches deep overall. Raked smooth, it made a temptingly tidy bed, but the last few weeks have been drier than usual and the soil was barely moist. Careful watering left the compost crumbly and receptive, drawing curious birds to investigate. Now all I need is plants, and somewhat warmer night time temperatures. However, another result of all this carefree labor is that I’ve been more muscle sore than expected. The restrictions of this past year definitely put a crimp in my activity level, and though I’ve walked most days and gardened weekly, I’m clearly not in my best shape ever.

Be Prepared

After the sunny, mild weekend, a number of my friends are similarly afflicted with self-induced strains and pains. Hearing these distressful tales, I’m reminded that the wise gardener does some stretching and warm ups before starting a vigorous gardening project. Next time I garden, so will I. Fortunately, a friend gave me a comforting cbd salve for sore muscles, which is also awesome for arthritic hands. As I continue to mature (at least technically), I find that arnica gel isn’t quite as effective for arthritic joints as topical cannabis lotions and potions.

Sadly, the days when I could garden for hours at a stretch without uncomfortable consequences are long gone. I’m also not as strong as I was a decade or two ago, nor as sure-footed on ladders or when climbing up in trees. These days, I have to pace myself, remembering my changing abilities and limitations. That’s not a very pleasant realization, but accepting reality turns out to be less painful than denying it. I’m fairly fond of denial, at least at times-I always remember a favorite counselor saying “Denial is an underrated coping skill.” Still, there are times when realism is the path that gets us no-longer-young people where we want to go.

Tai Chi In The Garden

Over the years, tai chi has played an important part in my life, and it’s been especially helpful during recurring bouts of vertigo. Tai chi is an excellent practice for gardeners, as it’s all about balance, pacing and a realistic understanding of what your own body is inclined or able to do on a given day. Walking attentively, dropping the center of balance, keeping the lower back open, all help stiffening backs and knees. Whether we’re bending and stooping or kneeling or crouching awkwardly, any such stretching and balancing exercises will stand us in good stead.

Sitting (which most of us do far too much of) compacts the spine and causes a lot of lower back issues. Standing around (usually mainly on one foot) isn’t much better, but tai chi offers a useful move well known to pregnant women; the Pelvic Tilt. It’s a little forward tuck of the tailbone that involves the abs and core muscles in a small adjustment that shifts weight downward to the lower belly, dividing it evenly between both feet and making our stance more stable.

Simple Warm-Ups For Gardeners

My best advice might be, don’t try to make up for a winter of neglect in one day. Divide projects into small parts, change tasks every 10-15 minutes, and always start by warming up your neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. It only takes about ten minutes and the results are rewarding. Begin with 8 neck rotations (the magic tai chi number), avoiding the backward position: Drop your right ear toward the right shoulder, letting the shoulder slope away earthward. Roll your chin to your chest, then repeat to the left. Return your chin to your chest between each side, but don’t roll your head backward, which can strain neck muscles.

Next, circle both shoulders 8 times, forwards and backwards. Raise your arms and rotate them at shoulder height 8 times in each directions. With arms at your sides, lightly clench your hands and circle your wrists 8 times forwards and backwards, then squeeze and release your hands 8 times. Shake out your hands lightly; they should tingle just a bit. To loosen the waist, do 8 hip circles forwards and backwards (like using a hula hoop). Shake out each leg for a few seconds and jump almost-but-not-quite off the ground on both feet together 8 times. End up by shaking out your hands and arms again for a few seconds. Now you should feel brisk and warm, with all joints loosened up and ready for action.

Aftermath

To prevent soreness after working, stretch your arms skyward, then do some hip rolls and pelvic tilts, gently rocking the spine forward and backward. If your back feels tight, lie down on a yoga mat or rug and press the small of your back to the floor, holding through five full breaths before releasing. Do that gently a few times and then take five minutes to reverse the blood flow to your legs; relax against a wall with your feet up, heels pointing toward the ceiling, and your legs supported by the wall. Onward!

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Know Your Neighbors

Mother of Thousands makes herself at home in damp shade

Recognizing Native Plants In Youth

The coastal Pacific Northwest is home to a treasure trove of plants, from tremendous firs and cedars to Bear Grass and Paintbrush. Though much of the coast has been developed over the past 150 years or so, the soil remembers when dense forest stretched from Alaska into Northern California. Disturb the soil in your garden and you’ll get weeds, for sure, but almost as certainly you’ll find seedlings of a wide range of native plants, from annuals, perennials and shrubs to those towering trees. Before yanking up unknown volunteers, take time to familiarize yourself with some of the most attractive natives in their youthful forms.

One good way to do this is to visit local nurseries. Many independent nurseries carry garden worthy natives, especially as gardeners’ interest in supporting native birds and pollinators increases. Naturally enough, native critters prefer native plants, though many are quite happy to move on to visit imported bloomers when the native flowers are spent. Fortunately, natives can coexist easily with other plants as long as they all enjoy the same conditions and care. Where native plants are sold in small pots, you can learn to recognize their form and foliage as youngsters. When you bring a few back home, you may discover that what you thought were weeds were in fact hopeful seedlings of handsome natives that will be very welcome in your garden.

The Native Returns

In regions that were forested for millennia, many of the returning natives will be shade lovers. Indeed, after sheets of ivy are removed from woodland areas, it’s quite common to find colonies of long-suppressed natives returning to their traditional homes. I recently visited a woodland garden where the well-meaning gardener was upset by persistent “weeds” which he was removing to make way for ground covers. It turned out that many of the “weeds” were Saxifrage cousins, native kin to coral bells (Heuchera). It took a lesson from the pages of Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast (by Pojar and MacKinnon) to convince my friend that he was ripping out hundreds of dollars worth of native ground covers that are every bit as lovely as the ones he wanted to plant.

Ironically, he had actually bought starts of some of the very plants he was uprooting, not recognizing them as younger version of his chosen replacements. Among these were a similar looking trio of perennials often called the Three T’s of the Northwest (Tolmeia, Tellima, and Tiarella). Tolmeia menziesii, aka Piggy-back Plant, may be better known to many people as a houseplant. It’s also called Mother Of Thousands for its habit of producing tiny plantlets at the base of older leaves. These babies will produce roots and transplant themselves as the fading foliage falls to the earth. The heart-shaped, palmate leaves are softly hairy, as are the stems decked with small chocolate colored flowers. Tolmeia is very apt to appear in damp shade, tucking its evergreen clumps comfortably between other plants.

Fringecup & Tiara Plant

Equally robust, Fringecup, or Tellima grandiflora also has hairy, heart-shaped leaves and flower stalks, but its flowers are larger, showing their relationship to coral bells (Heuchera). Pale green or rosy, the little bell blossoms are deliciously fragrant and quite long lasting in little desktop bouquets (and May baskets!). When well suited, Fringecups put on a significant floral display from mid spring into summer and the semi-evergreen foliage holds its looks well into autumn. Fringecup is one of my favorite “fillers” for informal woodland beds and borders, making attractive clumps under and between Oregon Grape, huckleberries, and rhododendrons. It’s also a good companion for snowdrops, snowflakes, and other spring bulbs, spreading its rounded skirts as the bulb foliage fades.

Fringecup

As the name implies, Tiarella trifoliata, or Foamflower, has divided leaves that come in threes, causing my friend to think it might be poison ivy. (“Leaves of three, let it be”, right?) As it happens, quite a few plants with leaves of three won’t cause your skin to break out, and Tiarella is among them. More delicate than its cousins, Foamflower produces clouds of tiny white flowers that sparkle in shady settings. A hardy perennial, it pops up in moist shady places, much to the delight of native bees and butterflies.

Inside-Out Flower

Though not related to the other three, another excellent native was among the uninvited guests in my friend’s garden. Inside-Out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra) is a charming, delicate looking perennial ground cover with sprays of tender green leaflets and wiry, arching stems tipped with bobbing white flowers like tiny birds on a wire. These are deeply reflexed, with petals bending backwards like shooting stars. Totally deciduous, the dainty leaves appear in late winter, making carpets of fresh, light green. A happy healthy plant, Vancouveria spreads companionably (never aggressively) between shrubs and larger perennials such as hellebores. It moves most quickly in damp soils but more slowly in summer-dry situations and transplants very easily.

By the time we sorted out which plants were actually weeds (notably ivy, holly, shotweed and stinky Bob) and which were little treasures, my friend had accumulated a pile of pictures on his phone for future reference. This is a great way to learn to recognize our native neighbors so we can appreciate them instead of ripping them up. It’s also a good way to make sure that we don’t hoe up clumps of seedlings that we carefully sowed last autumn; always plant a few in a small labeled pot and leave it where you scattered seeds. When they start coming up, take pictures every week or so at first, then every month to record the various stages they pass through on their way to maturity. Onward, right?

Vancouveria

 

 

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Why Anemones Will Always Win My Heart

This simple form attracts me because I’m biased.
In a good way.

Thoughts On Bias

The other day, someone asked me about a coppery red, spotty evergreen shrub, was there something wrong with it? I made a face and said “No, it’s a Photinia that doesn’t like the maritime Northwest, they color up and get those spots every winter up here. I HATE those things!” She said the plant looked weird, that color jut looked wrong in the spring when everything else is fresh looking. I agreed; I’ve always thought that if Photinia x fraserii turned those bronzy colors in autumn, I’d probably love it. But I was also interested to note that we were both revealing our biases about what looked “normal” and what looked “weird.” Bias is often hidden and can work both for and against: For years, I disliked variegated plants because they looked diseased to my eyes (and indeed, some of them are). On the other hand, I instantly adore any flower with that classic anemone form, from hellebores and pasque flowers to clematis and aconites.

Recently we’ve all had many opportunities to notice how biased our culture can be about people as well as plants, whether it’s expressed as racism or instant unconscious acceptance of people who look like us. Many researchers have pointed out that it’s far easier to recognize other people’s biases than our own. Lately I’ve been studying bias as a topic for the Inclusion Study Group of the Senior Community Center. Our next conversation will be about bias, and here’s what I’ve learned: Everyone is biased.

Yup. Here’s How It Works

Implicit Biases are biases taught directly and/or indirectly through our lifetimes through parents, teachers, neighbors, friends, advertising, media, etc. The term “implicit bias” explains how our attitudes towards people or stereotypes we associate with them were formed without our conscious knowledge. Bias ‘Blind Spots’ are places where we can see bias operating in others but can’t see it in ourselves and our own worldview. To sum it up, “Everyone thinks they are less biased than their peers.” This article on blind spots made me chuckle, then made me think again.
https://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2015/june/bias-blind-spot.html

Want to explore your bias? Check out these interactive tests:
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html

Who Knew?

The first test I took reveals how we feel about old people and younger people. The results suggested that I am strongly biased towards young people. I didn’t think so, but now that it’s been called out, I’m noticing that I do feel especially friendly when I see young people out and about. I asked my daughter what she thought and she said that, in her experience, I have always had special warmth for young people, more than most of her friends’ moms. Huh. Who knew indeed?

The second test indicated that I have a slight preference for dark skinned people over light skinned people, and the third, that I have a moderate preference for gay people over straight people. Again, I’m not so sure about that, but it’s certainly possible. Though I’ve been friends with gay and queer and BIPOC people since my highschool days, I’ve definitely done a lot more stretching since my daughter came out as transgender. The more I learn about how difficult life can be for anyone who is not straight and white, the more I am able to empathize and the more I want to help.

Confirmation Bias

Theologian Brian McLaren believes that confirmation bias is the most powerful, and works like this: “We all have filters, [such as] What do I already believe? Does this new idea or piece of information confirm what I already think? Does it fit in the frame I’ve already constructed? If so, I can accept it. If not, in all likelihood, I’m simply going to reject it as unreasonable and unbelievable, even though doing so is, well, unreasonable. I do this, not to be ignorant, but to be efficient. My brain (without my conscious awareness, and certainly without my permission) makes incredibly quick decisions as it evaluates incoming information or ideas. Ideas that fit in are easy and convenient to accept, and they give me pleasure because they confirm what I already think.

But ideas that don’t fit easily will require me to think, and think twice, and maybe even rethink some of my long-held assumptions. That kind of thinking is hard work. It requires a lot of time and energy. My brain has a lot going on, so it interprets hard work like this as pain…. Wanting to save me from that extra reframing work, my brain presses a “reject” or “delete” button when a new idea presents itself. “I’ll stick with my current frame, thank you very much,” it says. And it gives me a little jolt of pleasure to reward me for my efficiency.”

We Are Wired Like This

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis says confirmation bias works like this: “We are all wired by what we’ve experienced to be in search of a story with an ending . . . that feels like it has a completion. And the stories that we gravitate to are the ones that make sense to us, stories that fit, stories that feel like they have continuity, connection to the past, where we’ve been. . . . Those stories that we will follow are the ones that feel true, feel like they have continuity to our past and that resonate with the trajectory of our lives. So, we’re looking for the story that doesn’t necessarily change our minds; we’re actually looking for the story that confirms what’s in our minds.”

As far as interactions with people, I’m definitely open to learning more about my own hidden assumptions and leanings. The deeper I dig, the less I feel fearful of what I might find out. After all, if we don’t look, we’ll never know (though I suppose we can always ask our friends…). As far as my interactions with plants, I’m pretty happy with my bias towards the simple, beautiful form of an anemone, or a buttercup, or a single rose. For one thing, bees and other pollinators love that form as well. But I don’t really need a “good” or logical reason, I love them and that’s reason enough. In fact, I’m off to the nursery now!

 

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