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

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?