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

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Tote that Barge, Lift that Bale

Tote that Barge, Lift that Bale

[ Continuing to beat the dead horse, started in the essay “Work Harder, Not Smarter” ]

            Lifting weights is fine. The weights go up. The weights come down. The weights go up. The weights … watch your head! Well, you've gotten stronger. Hope the weights enjoyed their journey to nowhere. Were you generating electricity with those back and forth motions? No? Were you shooing away mosquitoes? Demonstrating a dance? Keeping warm?

            Let me recommend gardening. All the motions and stresses found in the gym are available, including stretching at odd angles (yoga), sitting in funny positions (pilates) and swatting at mosquitoes (dance). But, you're creating something!

            Picking up a leaf might be a stretch, but my leaf pile, years in the making and sometimes taller than I, is more than enough if you want to practice deadlifts. A pitchfork, stuck in the bottom, could not be lifted straight up by any champion powerlifter.

Repeating the beautiful picture from July's essay: turning over this leaf/compost pile would exhaust a powerlifter!

            A trowel full of dirt may be elevated by a child, but a shovel full of wet clay, lifted from the bottom of a hole, will be enough to tire you after ten or twenty repetitions.

            Mixing a variety of items in a wheelbarrow, such as clay, pine fines, compost, humus and chemicals is easier than digging holes, until you've done this for fifteen minutes without a break. Aerobics!

            Walking? Constantly moving from holes and beds to the work area and back, dragging my butt and hoses all over the yard to water, getting and bringing back tools to the shed (don't lose them in the leaf litter!), and running from packs of wolves or rabid chipmunks will put up large numbers on a steps-per-day meter. Enough to brag about. Exhausted, the step-meter will beg to be returned to the store.

            I've written elsewhere of the horrors of labor-saving devices, as my garden experience centers around a shovel, a rake and a wheelbarrow. No, I don't cut my lawn with scissors, but it gets done when my wife gently notes that she lost her car in the savanna as high as an elephant's eye and has also discovered where I hid the mower.

            So, yes, I do use labor-saving devices, including my car, which saves me from walking miles back home from the store carrying dirt and chemicals. But, I'm not proud of that. Maybe in my next life you'll see me moving down the highway, stiff and erect, bags of mulch balanced in a tippy pile atop my head. And, you'll be jealous.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Put Down that Shovel and Step Away

Put Down that Shovel and Step Away

      Cruising the net, this post from the Federal Department of Warnings caught my eye:

Don't Garden {GPO 2019-I-20- 314159}
Classified xxNN
For public release 2020-01-02

      To maximize the de-obfuscation of collateral work among siloed agencies, the following has been deemed of value to stake-holders. Attempts have been made, under directive Dept. of Agriculture 2003-01-19, to maximize clarity. Internalize the following:
      This department has been flooded with injury reports since it opened its investigation into the large number of gardeners who have died in the last 200 years. Unfortunately, our computers weren't able to keep track of the varieties of gardening injuries reported. The total exceeded their capacity. As a result, we've terminated this study and issued an alert.

      I was too upset to continue reading.
      Is my garden a menace?
      Stepping stones could be loose. Or slippery.
      Holes could twist your ankle, sneaking up and grabbing your foot when you're looking elsewhere.
      Dirt is a sea of pathogens. Have you heard of flesh-eating bacteria? I once lost a trowel. Trowel-eating bacteria? They aren't above suspicion.
      Plants appear uninvited. Smilax and Green Stick have thorns capable of sticking through you to the nearest tree and letting you hang there, impaled.
      Poison Ivy reminds you of your close encounter with any part of the plant, even two weeks after contact. The scratching is distracting. And … I … can't … stop …
      If a tree fell on you, it wouldn't matter if it was poisonous.
      There's even a tree with horror-movie sized spines on both its trunk and large branches. I guess if you needed to scratch your back after encountering the Poison Ivy …
A non-native tree which volunteered in my yard.

      What about the animals?
      Mice could carry plague. White-footed mice live in the leaf litter and try to get inside the house when the weather freezes. Similarly, voles, moles and shrews.
      Rabies naturally infects mammals: squirrels, fox, raccoons, possum, and deer. Don't let them bite! Just because I've never met anyone who has been bitten by a deer doesn't mean the danger isn't lurking.
      Would you believe mosquitoes are less fun than a barrel of monkeys? And they can pass on virus' such as Zika, West Nile, and other such nasties.
      While cleaning out some deadwood, home to a black widow spider, I wondered if thick gloves are enough.
      Snakes? Doesn't everyone love snakes? Hmmm ...
      The weather hangs over us. Heat stroke, frostbite, lightning strikes, tornadoes.
      Is that a complete list?
      Man-made dangers include: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, stepping on the business end of a rake and getting a concussion when the handle nails you (though we've all laughed when people in old movies hurt themselves that way,) scratching ourselves on a rusty nail or frayed metal screen, backing into … well, anything that we don't expect (note to self – never back up).
      Over the years, a set of injuries has slowed me. And stopped me. Lower back pain was deadly when it was time to dig holes and mix piles of dirt. The garden had to be patient. I'd be back. Wrist pain prevented pulling weeds and screening compost. A minor operation idled me for a couple of months. One could argue that gardening caused or worsened all of those.
      But seriously, folks (where have I heard that line?): pain isn't humorous. Having a root in a muddy hole snap back and paint your face with wet, sticky stuff? Now THAT'S funny!
      Government warnings are serious. Go back inside and collapse with a bag of Cheetos and reruns. What could go wrong?

Monday, August 19, 2019

See, I've Got These Tomatoes

See, I've Got these Tomatoes ...

      People assume.

      If you are very tall, a lot of questions from strangers will start with basketball, despite the fact that you might not have played it, and despise it. If you are old, a question about what it was like to be in the civil war might upset you. Young people can't distinguish between a forty year old and an eighty year old. They're both old people. So the civil war question is hardly out of the question.

      My garden is mostly azaleas under towering oaks. Some hosta, ferns and heucheras are nice accents. Shade gardening is what I do. On hearing I'm a gardener, a new acquaintance will ask about vegetables which require a lot of sun: normally tomatoes, but sometimes summer squash.

      The answer will depend on my mood and how I want to appear. Despite the fact that I know as much about veggies as a city dweller with a patio-poised potted petunia, there will be times when the desire for an air of infallibility pops out. If I was just introduced to a group of strangers as an expert in gardening, I might want to preserve that fiction, at least for a short time, and preferably for a period after my mouth opens.
Barney attempts to wake up both people who came for his talk.
      Another time might be when I've finished a talk before a garden club and am fielding questions. Here, the aura of “the sage on the stage” is a wearable cloak, until I get home and am told that I have to take out the trash and mow the lawn. Everyone has an ego, and I've decided not to fight mine, but just to go with it. Now we come to the moment in the bullfight where I either insert the sword or dodge the horns. I could say something that I half remember from a website, or another person's remarks: “Yes, eight hours of sunlight is best, but keep them watered and well drained.” Brilliant, and fits every sun-loving plant. Oh, they wanted to know about fertilizer? “Some 20-20-20 in the spring before blooming will get them off to a good start.” Again, seriously generic. How could that be wrong? Well, what if the question was a step above fertilizing, such as stopping blossom-end rot, or the best companion plants for Bell Peppers? Now the bull has me trapped against the fence. Time to bow out, gracefully. Once more, I can shuck-and-jive, hoping the next semi-answer will end the line of questioning, or I can smile weakly and return to the reality that I don't really know everything about everything.

      If a talk is going well and I've built up some credibility, its strength might carry a weak answer and few would notice. If a talk is not flowing well and the audience has discovered the joy of their smart phones, then there might be nothing to lose. But do I want to give them a dumb answer, anyway?

      If we could assign probabilities to the alternatives, as in behavioral economics, then the choice would be the answer with the expected gain greater than the expected loss. OK, that's not going to happen. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann is not sharing the stage, calculator in hand.

      Sometimes I DO want to give a generic, possibly misguided, answer and try to look magisterial. Sometimes I'm happy to say, “I don't know. I just grow azaleas. Anyone here wanna see a magic trick?”

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Learn, Baby, Learn

Learn, Baby, Learn

If I told you to put a lot of organic matter* in your soil before planting, you might say:

a) “Ok.”
b) “What's organic matter *?”
Or c) “Who are you? Why are you talking to me? And get that shovel out of my face!”

All three are valid answers. In any event: time to “larn you up.”

Organic matter: my leaf pile, someday rotting to compost, in front of a 4' fence for a size comparison.

I've had a squirrel-proof bird feeder in my back yard for over 40 years. It's on a pole with a loose baffle. Squirrels climbing the pole can't get past the metal baffle, as their weight tilts it down, and the top, rounded surface is too slippery to climb. Until the last week or so, when I watched a squirrel actually get some traction on that surface and pull himself up. After seeing this same squirrel accomplish such thievery several times, the baffle was drowned in silicone spray. We'll see. How do I know it was the same squirrel each time? Among the hoard of gray squirrels, it alone was almost black. No other squirrel accomplished this thievery during the week that I watched. Others didn't, or couldn't, learn from that miscreant. A good thing.

I've read there was a chimpanzee who was taught to understand and “speak” in sign language. It couldn't show any other chimps how to do the same. Have you seen the “Planet of the Apes” series of movies? Not a happy outcome for humanity. Maybe the chimp's instructional failure was a good thing.

The ability to teach important details to one's own species, often without a physical description to mimic, is a major factor in man's overrunning the earth and holding its fate in his hands. I hope that is a good thing.

Some people say they have a brown thumb, but I contend the difference between a brown thumb and a green one is knowledge. Not “simply” knowledge, since learning isn't always trivially easy, but knowledge is something that can be absorbed by normal people with motivation.

If you want a green thumb, you may choose a minimal amount of information to ensure your tomatoes grow well. Or, you may learn about many other plants, and get your whole garden off to a good start. Or, you could become obsessive, reading everything you can, talking to everyone you find with a modicum of knowledge, and even experimenting. Those options are all available to us through some magic inherent in being human.

So, I could teach you about “organic matter” and the needs of your soil. We could chat, amiably, about pH and minor nutrients. You would already know about the major nutrients. Friends would come by to enjoy your garden and protest they could never grow any plants that well. You would say, “I use a lot of organic matter in my soil.” They would say a) "Ok", or b) “What's organic matter *?” or c) …

* - “organic matter”, in this context, is the remnants of life: generally dead plants or parts of plants. Small animals, fungus and bacteria will eat those remnants and break them down to basic chemicals the roots of the plants in your garden would love to have. Compost and humus are two forms that can be made in the backyard or purchased. Mixing it into your soil before planting, and top-dressing with it afterwards is always a good strategy. Many books have been written on the subject of this paragraph. I would recommend: “Start with the Soil” by Grace Gershuny as an easy and intelligent introduction.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

One Is Not Enough

One Is Not Enough

      Agreeing with the title, you would include peanuts, chocolate and sex in your list of items that bear repetition. All with that ineffable “Wow!” factor. Others could be mentioned, but I'm typing pretty fast and don't have the time to go back, as I'm late for dessert.
      'Plants in a garden' also fits the title. Most plants need to be among friends to have an impact. A single azalea doesn't have the power of a cluster of them: I have a line of 3 'Daysprings' by the driveway, 2 'B.G. Reds' in front of the porch, 2 'Renee Michelles' around a large oak, etc. One 'Mildred Mae', by that same oak, is old but, has layered so many times that she covers a lot of ground, and is like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.

April 25, 2019 in the essayists garden

      A variety dominating an area gets the “Wow!” factor.
      I remember wandering in my garden, then turning around and coming face-to-face with an explosion of bright purple 'Amoenum'. The tallest plants were head-height and others surrounded it chest high. The whole mass was an overwhelming statement!
      Moving away from flowers, large clumps of a single variety of hosta can draw your attention as a focal point.
      Several modest Japanese Maples in full fall color demand you bow to them. A single one, larger than any one of the grouping by itself, can't match that power. The mass of reds and oranges will have you taking pictures from close up, far away, horizontal, vertical, brighter, dimmer and polarized. Results will be put into a folder titled “Wow!”
      The opposite of the above is dropping single plants into a bed because space is available, or plants all from the same hybridizer but looking individually different, or plants all grouped because they carry the names of movie stars, or [insert silly reason here: ...]. They don't mass and just seem random until you are informed of their common links. That requires a slight grin and chuckle: “How droll.” But, you don't say “Wow!”
      The opinion above doesn't apply in cramped surroundings, where variety is a better goal than swarms. Small decks, apartment patios, or townhouse backyards are candidates for interesting varieties, where two of a kind would require the exclusion of something else that screams “Hey. Over here. Look at me!”
      However, in a normal suburban backyard, after reducing the grassy area by 80%, replacing it with something less horticulturally mindless, trashing the hardscape design with a sledge hammer, and tearing out the English Ivy, there will be space. Space to stretch out and settle in.
Feel free to exclaim it again; even backwards!

Friday, May 24, 2019



      Back from a 2-week cultural tour of Japan, organized by Overseas Adventure Travel. Definitely recommended!

      Not recommended: going there and back, starting with a 3-hour delay getting off the ground from Reagan-National Airport due to a thunderstorm. At one time “getting there was half the fun”, but now with delays, full flights, cramped seats, and other items you are eager to add to that list, the fun starts on arrival. Jetlag is only now beginning to recede for my wife and I, allowing a little writing about the trip.

      I had never been to the Far East, though you know, without studying a map, the mid-section of Japan we visited was a sliver of the giant that is Asia. Nonetheless, the two weeks were packed with experiences and short talks on the history and nature of Japanese society by a fine leader, Marika, and great companionship from others on the tour.

      We visited a number of gardens, many connected with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I took pictures of nice landscapes and kept an ear out for birds. I didn't get to add too many to my lifelist. Time was stolen from temple gates and incense to lean over hedges for a glimpse of birds making a racket. They expertly hid, not knowing I didn't have a gun. Better to be safe. On occasion they would slip up and show themselves, eventually allowing me to add 18 species to the modest list I've kept for almost 50 years.

      As for gardens, the style was formal in the extreme, showcasing hedges that must have been manicured with nail clippers. Quite the opposite of the naturalistic gardens in my area, and backyard.

      British gardens have the same formality with man's hand dominating nature's attempts to be itself.

      Powerful, rich people show their dominance of nature, grabbing it by the throat and twisting it into artificial forms. Possibly neither British nor Japanese gardeners influenced the other, rather developing by “convergent evolution” toward the same artificial idea. This convergence is apparent, for example, in birds of different families developing similar structures (bills, feet, etc.) for individuals with a need to survive in an evolutionary niche.

      How are the two countries' gardens different? Japanese gardens have more rocks and water features than I saw in Britain. A scattering of stone lanterns seems to fill a need. English formal gardens have elaborate fountains and statuary, celebrating myth and glory.

      If you promise not to tell anyone, I'll let you in on a secret: I'm not rich or powerful! Who would'a thunk it?? My garden will stay naturalistic, and I'll enjoy its woodsy setting. Here's hoping your garden is a reflection of what you enjoy!

Friday, April 19, 2019

... And the Beat Goes On

… And the Beat Goes On
            I enjoy seeing other people's gardens, including those which are clearly better looking than mine. However, I have an emotional problem when visiting. No one has called 911 yet, while I was around, but let me explain.

            In the beginning, there was darkness upon the yards, and then God created Gardeners. Gardeners massaged the land to fit the physical and emotional needs of humans: food and beauty. And it was good. Until mono-culture factory farming displaced Gardeners who farmed the land. The factory farming put machines and caretakers in place of those who loved doing what they were doing. At least loved it more than they loved stacking boxes at Walmart, or pushing papers at an insurance company. But, I digress.

            Other Gardeners, such as myself, went to work creating an enjoyable hangout. Okay, no, I didn't go to “work” doing that, but it filled much of my after-work time. And, it was good. And satisfying. And completely engrossing.

            Landscapers were not created by God. I'll let you work out their provenance. They blithely note, “If you cut out all those hostas and ferns you could put in a great stone patio, a central fountain, several tables and a wet bar!” They take a hunk of change, drooling as they do, lay down a lot of hardscape, drop in some common plants from Home Depot along the edges, take off, and are done. Done.
            Done? Gardening is never done. It's a work in progress. Gardeners will die, or be dragged off to a nursing home, not screaming, but crying quietly. Their work will be unfinished. They will lament that great stroke of genius, planned for the next year, which will live only in their imaginations. Soon also to go. The bushes will be flattened under the rusting hulks of the new owners' old cars, the trees cut down to put up soccer fields, and a three-story house built overlooking the neighbors' bedrooms.

            What real hobby is ever “done?” Does a chess player play a fine game and then quit, having “done” chess? Does a runner run his best race and, exhausted, quit, having “done” running? Do artists and writers finish a work and say, “I've done the best that can be done. Time to watch daytime TV.” None that I've met.

            A Landscaper is “done.” A Gardener is involved in the flow of his work, stopping when it is too dark. [Note: a well known Gardener/hybridizer sets up large floodlights and keeps working, but he may be too focused on the flow. When it's dark, it's time for dinner. But I digress.]

Someone else's garden
            Oh, wait, I had started to talk about my “problem” when visiting other's gardens. The problem is  I can't stop gardening. I try to pick fallen branches and leaves off their azaleas, weed the daylilies, and clip a wayward branch off the Japanese Maple. As my right arm is reaching to right a visible wrong, my left hand grabs it and pulls it back, so it's left at my side. Reminiscent of Dr. Stangelove's wayward arm. I've seen it once or twice in my own garden, when clubs come to see the tiers of azaleas. A few visiting Gardeners start twitching. In the interests of amity, I look away, despite muttering “Get your _____ _____ hands off my plants!” It helps to remember how hard it is when the situation is reversed.

            Even in someone else's garden, work is never done. Someday, someone will call 911 to stop my frenzied work on their plants. Maybe next year.

           If I phone, will you post bail?