Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Five Seasons

The Five Seasons


            Never-ending cold. The sidewalks are slippery. I hate having to be careful!

            Snow is forecast ten days from now. They've been right sometimes. I'll scatter some soil amendments on the beds before then, so they'll soak in slowly as the snow melts.

            Plenty of time to update garden maps using last year's changes. Drawn with Microsoft Paint, then printed for reference.

            Arranging photos of flowers, herbaceous beds, and fall colors can take days. Some even make the cut and wind up on the web. The garden didn't really look that good? It must have been a Photoshop trick.

            Deer eating the azaleas? NO! Bambi must die!

            The dark months, after the leaves have been picked up, are the time to get acquainted with your house's interior. The living room, kitchen, bedroom, bath. Got it. Stuck inside.

            Another two months of this? Get me out of here!


            The point. The full year of work comes to this: great looking flowers.

            Standing among them in the early morning, steam slowly spinning skyward from my personal coffee cup, shoes shiny with dew, nowhere else in the world matches this. Later in the day, visitors will enjoy the scene. Did I pick up all the dead leaves? I wish they were here Tuesday when that 'Amoenum' looked great!

            “Kodak Moments”, toothy grins spread wide. Less clich├ęd when in front of a bright wall of flowers than during other seasons.

            Is that yellow bird fan-dancing through the leaves a Kentucky Warbler or a Yellowthroat? But, I know where my bird book is.

            Trees and grass show off a light green. The sun is warm and plans develop unhurried by distracting insects or cold winds. No rush. It seems this could last forever.

            Couldn't be better!


            Pushing through dense air and vegetation.

            Bug repellent, headbands, and hoses.

            I'm holding on in the face of extreme heat and drought, continuing into the next day, and the next, and … some herbaceous plants are giving up and collapsing. A few small plants in pots leave this vale of tears. Where do they go? Should that be “this veil of tears?”

            Main activities: dragging hoses all over the yard, mixing dirt for new beds, and top-dressing old ones later.

            Trees and grass settle into dark green.

            Ah, some summer flowers are showing off: daylilies, mimosa, milkweed. Butterflies are getting attention. I forget how to tell the Spicebush Swallowtail from the dark morphed Tiger Swallowtail. But, I know where the butterfly book is.

            Scratching bites. Where'd that poison ivy rash come from?

            Ahhhh (Finally)

            Temperatures tick lower. Mosquito clouds thin.

            I work in my undershirt without defending against bugs or cold. Neighbors look the other way.

            The best time of year for planting and transplanting.

            Dreaming of next year. We'll expand that bed and top-dress the other. Do I want to start a new bed by the fence now? Leave it 'til later?

            Fall asters and sedum are still attracting butterflies.

            Dragonflies! Is that an Eastern Pondhawk or a Slaty Skimmer? But, I know where the dragonfly book is.

            Tree leaves surviving, a little worn and bug-bitten. Grass browning.


            The world turns brown, up and down.

            Still planting and transplanting. Give the roots time to settle in and feed.

            Raking and making. Leaves turn into compost, which turns into top-dressing for beds.

            Is that leaf from a Pin Oak or a Spanish Oak? But, I know where my tree book is.

            New life amid the old strife: arum and rohdea japonica start to grow in the cool winds, to die back the next summer, now sharing the newly thinned beds with erect hellebores. Are those really crocus and daffodil shoots expanding above the surface?

            Flashes of orange and red. That's why I grow Japanese Maples. And some of the azalea leaves are blazing red and yellow. Wow, that sky is really blue!

And Again … Dark

            A new season of cold and stasis wraps around the calendar, and into my mind, pushing me back through the door, to room temperatures echoing the African savanna I was created for.

            Will this cold wind never end?

            Fade to Dark.

Monday, January 20, 2020

You're Being Put on Notice

You're Being Put on Notice

            Humans notice what they want to notice, though each has their own focus.
             Birds? What birds?:  A man enjoys a vacation in France, even taking the TGV from north to south. He reports to his friend, a birder, how much he enjoyed the trip and how much he saw. The friend asks, “Did you see any birds?” The man shrugs, “No.” The birder's eyes pop. “You traveled through a whole country and didn't even see one bird?” The reply, “No.” Of course he saw many birds, but didn't notice them or remember them.
             Lawn? What lawn?:  One day I showed a co-worker a photo of some of my azaleas taken in the back yard. Expecting perfunctory compliments, I was floored when he simply said, “Don't you ever mow your lawn?” I hadn't even noticed I had a lawn. At least, not in that picture. My yard-life is dominated by the care of azaleas and some other flowering plants. A lawn? I sort of remember mowing the lawn occasionally, I think. The area of the yard others call a “lawn” is, for me, a collection of low, herbaceous green stuff: clover, plantain, crabgrass, Stiltgrass, dandelion, Creeping Charlie and the like. They're green. I'm fine with green. My standard line is: “When the weeds in my yard green-up, it must be spring.”

Did you notice the Ground Orchid flowers? Don't look at the ground.
            Bushes? What bushes?:  Which brings me to an event last summer. A micro-burst had taken down a couple of large branches of Red Maples (note to self: don't ever plant such brittle, short-lived specimens!) The branches missed most of the azaleas, but were too big for my handsaw, so I called a tree service, and they came the next day. I had them take down a few small, dead branches from some oaks in the front yard, too, and they were done in an hour. They showed they were a complete service team by using a leaf blower to clean the lawn of debris, which was too small to bother picking up by hand. Where did this debris go? Yes, you got it on the first try! All over the azaleas, leaving them covered with “leavings,” leaving a clean lawn, and leaving me to pry off the leaves and other debris from my favorite plants. I'm sure they were sure homeowners would appreciate their cleanliness. I'm sure, on average, they were right, as they noticed the lawn and ignored the bushes.
            Bushes are for workers to empty excess paint behind, drape hoses and tools over, and hide other activities that would/should never be noticed by the homeowners.

            I've noticed that almost every hobby can be lonely.
            I've noticed that maintaining a large garden is a lot of work, not 100% successful as winds, rains, droughts, bugs, branches, and maintenance workers torture it.
            I've noticed that other people don't notice what I notice, though their variety make the world more interesting. I'll give the universe a pass on that!

Thursday, December 19, 2019



      Snows have a personality. We remember them as we remember people. Sometimes it is a fine, soft coating of vanilla, enjoyed from our picture window with a favorite beverage keeping us company. Comforting. A good friend. Some are heavy, wind-whipped and bitter. An acquaintance from whom we can't wait to move on.
Remember the excitement of being a student, desperately hoping for a snow day? On the day of a test? Which you were not prepared for? In that class you hated? So you could binge on snacks, TV, DVDs and video games? And still not study for the test? The snow from a beneficent deity.
Snowmaggedon, 2010-02-08, 19 inches here in Northern VA. The falling evergreen on the right didn't survive.
      Don't tell anyone: teachers pray for snow days more than kids do! As a teacher living in the southern part of my county, I've enjoyed days when schools were canceled due to heavy snow north of us, while my region of the county, southeast of the Piedmont in the coastal plain, only had rain. Time for my wife and I to hit the malls!
      For gardeners, snow has its beneficial side and its no-good-branch-cracking horrible side. Cold, dry snows sift through plants, land on the mulch and eventually melt gently, deeply into the soil. Mother nature shivers, but smiles. However, warmer wet, heavy snows may pile up on the leaves and branches, bending the lucky ones to the ground without damage, snapping into compost the unlucky ones. A vengeful deity, smiting all.
      Late snows and cold slow the spring flowering, burying crocuses, delaying daffodils, killing azalea buds. March snows are worse than ones in January. At the first of the year, spring is last year's photograph, and an uncertain hope. In March we've smelled that spring and want the warm, sunny days. Here. Now.
      I still look around the yard and identify damage from storms over twenty years ago. Some snows have killed parts of plants. Some have bent branches to the ground, where they took root and extended the parent plant in a process known as “layering.” In at least two cases, the parent has died and the plant lives on in that layered section. I thank that snow now, but I didn't then. Judging snows is like judging people. Some you hate, some are just irritating, some you appreciate, and some you love. Sometimes it takes years to decide.
      Looking back on life, I made the same delayed judgments about several events as I did about snow: being forced to learn things I didn't want to, getting a job that was my third choice, and breaking up with a girl friend. Yet, everything turned out fine. Thinking I can predict the future is a strange illusion. That realization has developed slowly, as snow falling gently, building up, its depth hardly noticed.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019



“If the good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise.”

“Watcha gonna do when the well runs dry?”

“Who'll stop the rain?”


      Mae West, and I, have said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!” I was thinking of chocolate, among other things, and will still defend the quote.

      Free water, falling from the skies, is so necessary for life above the oceans that it's prayed to and mythologized. Its comings and goings control man: civilizations such as the Babylonians, Mayans and Anasazi; subgroups such as the people from the lower plains who invaded California in the 30's; the exodus from New Orleans in 2005, Houston in 2017, and the California fires. All because the rains don't behave. Mae West didn't behave either, but she didn't result in much devastation.

      People have been paid to bring rain: Witch doctors, psychics, con-men with secret machines, scientists spraying silver iodide, people who step on ants. Militaries have studied weather control for their own ends.

      As of this writing, people still die in floods, crops rot in the fields, and drought ensures fires. No one demonstrates control.

Which brings me to rain-making solutions that are well known, underused and you should try: washing your car, watering your lawn and garden, planning an outdoor wedding, buying expensive tickets to a baseball game, losing part of your roof to any one of a thousand threats, and leaving your convertible top down for the night. I don't have a convertible, so I drag my hoses and body parts around the front and back yard in mosquito-infested humidity. My desires for a huge garden were bigger than my anti-mosquito capabilities, forcing a downsize.

      The Mid-Atlantic climate gives my garden enough rain each year. Unfortunately, the distribution of the rain allows heat, deluge, and drought, all of which can kill. I'm not able to water the garden enough to save everything, including the small plants with inadequate roots. The planting distribution needs to be compacted. Fewer plants in less space. I've talked before about the difficulty of giving away more plants each year than I get, but that is hard. Most of what I have now I want to keep.

      When I began writing this a couple of years ago, we'd just completed a record sequence of days of drought, followed by a record sequence of days of rain. For my land, any summer rain is welcome, but the drought period cost me 1½ Japanese Maples and a nice, large Glenn Dale azalea, though I tried to keep everything watered.

      Returning to this essay now, I'll add that recent floods killed ten azaleas this late winter and spring. Those areas will be rebuilt with more dirt and increased drainage. Root damage due to the flooding (azaleas aren't pond plants) makes the survival of some others problematical.

      One solution to the summer droughts is to stock up on spring ephemerals that look great in April and May, then collapse in the summer's heat. But no, their garden palette is too limited.

      Another solution is to buy watering systems that turn on and off with the flick of a wrist, covering the whole yard. Not for me. I need the money for old age medical bills. And food.

      Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, severe droughts, blizzards, and haboobs are all extreme forms of weather that man, as a species, if not specific individuals, has survived. Far from the equator, people surround themselves with clothing and buildings. My garden doesn't wear clothes and is not “inside.” Will it last until the next rain? Similar to child rearing, it's a struggle with an uncertain outcome, but the rewards for success are enormous!

      I do have a perfect solution to the problems above but I've run out of space to tell you about it on this sheet, and I've got to go out now and move the hoses