Gardening Through The Years

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Poppies are simply gorgeous

Growing (Older) With The Garden

Recently I’ve been visiting (in person and virtually) gardens of friends who have been gardening in the same place for many years. Seeing any gardens develop from exciting potential to abundant maturity is delightful, but especially so when we’ve had a hand in the process. Whether it’s offering ideas and lists, helping to edit over time, or crawling around under lethally armed shrubs, bravely bleeding yet persisting (!) until the daunting task is done, joining the gardener in the endeavor also joins us to the garden. Last night, strolling a large, complex garden with its amazing mom, we shared powerful memories of long gone plants, of designs coming into fruition and designs gone astray, of plants battling for dominance and plants that refused to be uprooted. Working in a garden, however fitfully, creates a relationship with both plants and people that can endure for decades.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way; years after doing a consultation I often recall much more about the garden than about the gardener. I’m afraid people don’t find it flattering that I remember exactly how huge firs or the septic field dictated that garden design but fail to recall the gardener’s name. I’m curious whether other gardeners develop this kind of lasting connection with place and plants, one that remains strong over years of separation. Seeing a garden after a lapse of time, are most of us able to envision the way it was and also see how those early roots have grown into something different?

Keeping It Real

I used to assume that all gardeners are both visually oriented and also feel kinship with their plants. It’s always fascinating to work with someone who doesn’t process that way. Quite often they are people who prefer to grow edibles in neat rows and whose souls are soothed by a uniformity and tidiness that makes my toes twitch. No surprise there? My favorite gardens all have at least a touch of the wild, and most truly celebrate the magnificent abundance of plants, letting them develop their natural forms wherever possible. Naturally, that means we must be especially wise and far sighted when we place and plant them. We all mean to do that, but the seductive lure of the multitude of marvelous plants can make wisdom and discretion take a back seat to desire.

When we are young and tireless, that creates a wonderful dance of planting and transplanting, editing and squeezing just one more charmer into a vignette that cries out for just that touch of chartreuse (if green is the basic black of the garden, chartreuse is the string of pearls). However, as we ourselves mature, age begins to play an ever-larger role. Many of us are leaving large houses and great gardens behind and learning to live small, and many of us are loving the change. A dear friend who had a huge and complex garden in Alaska for many years recently relocated to a modest home in Ohio with a very small garden. As we swap pictures of our tiny spaces, we both display astonishing maturity of insight:

LB: (sending image of tiny side garden afloat in sweet peas)

Me: (sending an image of my tiny front garden full of sweet peas)

LB: It’s beautiful. That is all a person needs. Why did we feel like we had to have one million and eleven plants?

Me: Yes, when I think of the obsessive years when I had to grow every single species or form of peony or iris or primrose or whatever, I marvel at the energy and devotion that required.

Mature, right? These days I’m truly content with my small space, the generosity of the plants, and the little birds that love my garden. Having fewer flowers means I look at each one more closely, as I used to do when I first fell in love with a poppy as a child. Less work to do, more time to take delight. Onward, right?

Small is beautiful (and a loteasier to deal with)

Posted in Annual Color, Birds In The Garden, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Plant Diversity, Plant Partnerships, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Doing What We Love And Making It Count

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Life is better when we can love what we do

Spending Our Energy Wisely

Ah, June, the month of the monsoon? Wait, what? Crazy weather seems to be the norm everywhere these days; who expects an atmospheric river rain event and howling winds in June? Given the drought situation we’ve been in for years now, I’m actually quite grateful for the rain and will welcome as much more as we may be granted. Still, it was a daunting night, with a continual rattle and thump of fir cones on the roof and gusty shrieks that sounded like lost souls. Despite a power outage due to blown down trees, the only casualty here was the overnight loss of all my peony blossoms, which were torn to bright shreds by the tempest.

Peony blooms are so fleeting at best, and given my extremely limited garden space, I’m considering replacing the elderly plant I inherited with the house. After all, it’s not one I would have chosen (I prefer single peonies, and this one is a deep red double that bees have a hard time getting to the heart of). Given the truly awful subsoil on this little lot, I’m thinking another trough or large container will be a better choice than trying to coax a new plant to thrive in such ridiculous dirt. Besides, the peony is smack against the house wall, a place where no plant belongs, and a large container will both allow air space between foliage and wall and prevent seepage from watering to get into the crawl space. Years ago, I would have spent many laborious hours (and years) trying to amend this subsoil (the lots here were all scraped clear back in the 60s). These days, I’m more aware of my limited energy and more clear about what I want to spend it on.

Micro Activism Makes A Difference

Many years ago, when I wrote for the Seattle Weekly, it was suggested that I could develop a Seattle Black Finger Award to call out terrible pruning and bad planting throughout the city. When I said that I much preferred to promote positively, the idea was dropped (after some push back) but it helped me clarify my own tendencies. I’m thinking a lot about where I want to invest my energy these days, not only in terms of soil amending but in amending—or trying to amend—so many ecological and social issues that I’ve lost track. To keep myself from spinning out, I’ve been reading a truly helpful, wise, and sane little handbook called Micro Activism; How You Can Make A Difference In The World (Without A Bullhorn), by Omkari L. Williams. The author leads activism workshops and trainings and is the host of a podcast called Stepping Into Truth where she interviews activists from all walks of life. The book is short and concise, yet though I’ve read it through once, the second reading still offers a lot to ponder.

Today’s ponder is a section on figuring out what we stand for; the author suggests making a list of every cause we care about. If you’re like me, that list is huge and might feel as daunting as a power outage (especially for those of us running on low wattage these days). After making that list, Omkari says to pick one, or at most two issues and set the rest aside for others to tackle. I’ve said this myself many times over the years yet I keep getting sucked in to various issues despite my good intentions. However, when I start grouping issues under sub headings, it’s clear that supporting and defending the natural world/environment has been and remains my top concern. A close runner-up is supporting and defending the Queer community, also a long time concern.

Go Forth In Joy

One of my favorite sections of the book asks the reader to create a statement about an issue that you are strongly against (her example is “I am against child abuse.”). Now craft a positive version (hers is “I am for all children living lives of security and joy.”) She then asks which statement feels more motivating in your body, not just intellectually but in your heart and gut. For me, stating that I am for healing, healthy environments all around the world brings a strong feeling of positive energy and willingness to continue the work. Similarly, saying that I am for all people living safe and joyful lives feels good, but adding that I stand for safe, joyful Queer lives feels more motivating.

Yes, I also care deeply about safe, joyful BIPOC lives and Elder lives and women’s lives and that’s also strongly motivating, but having so many beloved Queer family members and friends in my daily life who experience various gut wrenching, heart breaking kinds of harm just brings that part of the Beloved Community home to my heart in a very powerful, direct way. Ack! With so much to do, who can choose? The author points out that with 8 billion people on the planet, many others are already working skillfully and hard on every single issue we can come up with. Nobody can do it all and many of us can barely manage to deal with what we’re dealt. So here I go, stumbling forward once again, knowing I am not alone, I don’t have to fix anything/everything, and that my best move is to reach out and connect with others on this path. Together we can do far more than any of us can do alone, even if all we can do seems small. Onward, right?

Posted in Care & Feeding, Climate Change, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Plant Diversity, Pollination Gardens, Social Justice, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Cottonwood Trees Are The Bee’s Knees

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Cottonwood puffs are Nature’s air cleaners

Piles Of Puffs Are Nothing To Sneeze At

It’s cottonwood time again, and the snowy little seed puffs are arriving by the thousands. Cottonwood trees can be male or female, and unless there’s a male somewhere in the neighborhood, the fluffy female seeds will seek out pollen in vain; while there’s always plenty of pollen in the air during our breezy springs, without a nearby male cottonwood, none of it will be the right kind. If you have a cottonwood on your property, you can tell which it is by looking at the catkins in early spring; male catkins are yellow, while the girls are green.

Every year in late spring, female cottonwood seeds go roaming with the wind, sweeping the air clean of male pollen. Though most people assume that these fluffballs are causing allergies to flare, in fact, the girls are our friends. Like a number of other female seeds, cottonwood gals gather male pollen as they tumble in the breezes. These intrepid explorers are able to grab the guys (which look like tiny, greenish, sand-sized grains) because female tree seeds have a negative electrical charge, while male pollen develops a positive charge from its wind blown journey. When female seeds attract and capture male pollen, they add each grain to their stash until they get heavy enough to sink to the ground. Only a few will find a comfortable place to sprout, and fewer still will survive to treehood, but each new cottonwood is something to treasure.

Not Trash Tree But  Tribal Treasure

Though cottonwoods get precious little respect these days, they have been prized for millenia by bees as well as people. Related to aspens and poplars, these big, beautiful native trees are fast growing and sturdy, with species found all over North America. All were valued by Native American tribes, who used the wood for masks and medicine, ritual and ceremonial objects of many kinds and sizes, from sacred poles to Hopi kachinas. Black Cottonwood, the PNW coastal species, has the familial large, heart-shaped leaves and given good conditions, can reach 150 feet in height. Tribal people had dozens of uses for this medicine tree, from eating the sweet inner bark in spring to making salves from boiling buds with deer fat to treat sore throats and baldness, boiling old leaves into soothing wraps for arthritic joints, and much, much more. Cottonwood trees offer ingredients for paint and poultices, canoes and carrying bags, baskets and buckets, sweat lodge poles, spinning fiber and shampoo. The sticky gum makes glue for arrowheads and feathers, and the antibacterial resin is even used by native bees to seal and protect their hives. Perhaps observing this may have led ancestral people to explore other uses, just as watching squirrels licking maple trees encouraged East Coast Tribes to discover sweet maple sap and learn to make syrup millennia ago.

Sadly, the cottonwood is now among the most loathed trees in North America, mainly because of that abundant fluff but also because this large tree is out of scale with today’s small housing lots and shrinking public parks. Cottonwoods get cut down because their roots break sidewalks and their fluff clogs drains, because branches can break in high winds, and because they’re simply considered to be ‘too messy’. In many communities, cottonwoods are actually classified as “trash trees”, a designation that ought to be unthinkable if not illegal. No Native tradition calls any plant “trash” and no such disrespectful, presumptuous term would ever be used for anything in Nature.

When Nature Gets Messy

The idea that native plants are trash comes from the colonial viewpoint that also held the ‘highest and best use’ for land to be development. This wrongheaded thinking is the root cause of endless destruction of ecosystems and habitats around the globe as humans strive to extract anything perceived to be a ‘better’ resource once stripped from its natural place. Sadly, even gardeners can be blinded by this insane mindset, fooled by conventional thinking into converting every backyard in the country into the same deadly patch of monoculture lawn, edged with the same few border plants, all relentlessly mown and sheared into submission.

The rewilding movement that seeks to allow degraded, abused land to revert to its natural state is often stymied by the cultural conditioning that demands that land must be clearly and obviously tamed by the Hand of Man. Neighbors can get riled up when they see weeds (often native plants) popping up in place of mown turf and sheared shrubs. It’s true that the transition period from, say, a starved and barren backyard or overworked farmland to a thriving young meadow or forest can definitely appear messy, untidy and random looking. Nature can be messy indeed, as the aftermath of any natural disaster shows us, whether from a volcanic explosion, a battering hurricane, a prolonged drought, or an abandoned strip mall. Over time, though, Nature finds a way through the inevitable cracks and crannies, sending up shoots from buried roots and sowing seeds with enormous generosity. While it isn’t practical to allow every chance seedling to flourish wherever it chooses (especially when a potentially huge tree appears inches from the foundation of a home), it’s time to reevaluate our impulse to domesticate and subdue the natural world and instead learn to admire, respect and love natural abundance, defending it wherever we can. Onward, right?


Posted in Care & Feeding, Climate Change, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Plant Diversity, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening, Weed Control | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Sweetness of Sweetgrass

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Sweetgrass bound for a Tribal prairie restoration

Taking Care

As temperatures are climbing towards normal, I’m planting out seedlings and starts and already noticing signs of drought and weather whiplash in both plants and soil. Given the NOAA prediction of another hot, dry summer, it’s definitely going to be a season when taking care of plants will be more important than ever. In calmer years, it was a delight to pay close attention to my dear plants, noting their changes like a doting mother studying the progress of beloved children. Every change from sprout to shoot, from bud to blossom, from bee fodder to seed pod, felt like a marvelous pageant, offering a totally enthralling array of life stages. In years when family turmoil felt overwhelming, I found relief in the sturdy resilience of perennials, which often throve or at least survived without needing a lot of attention. As time went on and life became more complicated, I came to deeply appreciate plants that made benign neglect rewarding.

Annuals, on the other hand, are far less forgiving, because they can’t afford to be; with just one shot at success, any check in their development, whether from wild weather or non-benign neglect, can be fatal. If they don’t die outright, they may linger on, frail and dwindling, like the Victorian women who took to their beds and turned their faces to the wall yet lingered, unable to move on. Interestingly, it’s actually quite hard to die of disappointment when the body strongly wants to live. Plants also want to live and do their best with what they have, but it’s a rugged plant indeed (probably a weed or at least oregano) that can truly thrive under adverse conditions. Yes, there are lovely desert and plains plants that enjoy hot, dry spots but few of them can tolerate our western winters (though that may be changing). In any case, I’m going to be observing and taking notes on plant performances this year so I can make more informed decisions next time around.

The Fragrance of Sweetgrass

One decision that definitely paid off was to try more prairie plants, which are more used to seasonal temperature extremes than many favorite ornamentals. Among the happiest has been sweetgrass, Heirochloe odorata. Sometimes called vanilla grass for its lovely fragrance, this sturdy prairie dweller has been used for millennia in braids, baskets and smudges said to attract beneficent spirits. It certainly raises my spirits as whenever I handle it, that gentle aroma makes me smile. I’ve been handling it a lot lately as I’v learned that it likes to be divided and may dwindle if left alone too long. Robin Wall Kimmerer says that sweetgrass has become domesticated, much like corn and beans, and without human help, it isn’t able to survive long in the wild. Last year I planted ten little starts and thanks to a kind garden neighbor who watered when I was unable, they throve and spread into a large happy tangle of roots and shoots. I planned to offer some sweetgrass starts to neighboring Tribal basketmakers and weavers and artisans but wasn’t able to connect with them so just kept potting up the wandering shoots anyway as we made room in the pea patch bed for kale and peas and garlic.

Recently I discovered a new destination for them when I visited the brand new library/museum of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. This is a gorgeous, stunning, hand built building, beautifully combining exceptional design, craftsmanship and artistry. The collection is fantastic and beautifully displayed, the workmanship is extraordinary, and every detail is amazing: even the rug is a topographic map of the Jamestown S’Klallam territory. After a fascinating tour, hearing the history and meaning of many spectacular Tribal totems, we spent some time in the art gallery, where I learned that the Tribe is working on restoring part of the native prairie. Over 97% of the native prairie has been lost to development, and bringing back this invaluable habitat is a major project for the Tribe. Since sweetgrass used to be common in such places, my offer of sweetgrass starts was accepted with excitement and enthusiasm. I came home determined to pot up as many more start as possible, which turns out to be good, since that very day I learned that our neighboring Tribe is also interested in having as many starts as I can offer. Fortunately this willing plant is still spreading happily and I’m hoping to have 100 starts to share by this fall. Onward, right?
Some of the remarkable Jamestown S’Klallam totems


Posted in Annual Color, Climate Change, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Plant Diversity, Plant Partnerships, Planting & Transplanting, Seedling Swaps, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 9 Comments