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?

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Pumpkin Pie in the Heat of July?

{{ My first garden essay, concatenated with a later one. }}

Pumpkin Pie in the Heat of July?

     I liked it at first.
     A vine had appeared with large blue flowers on a pole in a neighbor's yard. I didn't remember seeing it on my jogs and decided that it must have just been planted. A month later, the vine and flowers were still there, exactly as they had appeared the first day. Come fall and then winter, those large flowers on the vine were still shining as gloriously as the day they were ejected from some Chinese factory.
      Is that homeowner's approach better than planting the vine, waiting for the flowers and then cutting it down when it turns brown in November? I tried to think why, and then remembered how much the tiny crocus' are enjoyed in the brown dirt, snow patches, and dead leaves of late winter. It was so long since I had seen any flowers and nothing else was around for competition.

      Why do I like the yellow and blue Warblers of spring more than the birds that visit my feeder? The warblers only pass through during a brief window in May whereas the Chickadees, Cardinals and Blue Jays are always here.
     The dominance of azaleas in May, a mass of color in the landscape, is like no other display and I'd rather be in my backyard then than anywhere else. A wall of soft, bright color here. A blaze of garish lights there. And of course they fade, but while our time with them is short, it is special.
     We don't eat pumpkin pie and drink eggnog in July. The few times that we enjoy them are memorable.
      Christmas lights look great in the winter evenings, but a neighbor keeps a small evergreen lit with them all year, and it just becomes part of the woodwork.
     The flower colors of spring, the dark green dominance of summer and the leaves of fall are pleasures that haven't been seen in a year and we always look forward to the show. 
      I hate winter: cold, windy, icy, dark. But I grudgingly admit, without that contrast the spring wouldn't look, feel, and smell as great. So I'll raise a cup of hot chocolate to the collapsing thermometer, wait for the first crocuses and give winter its due.
- - - - - - - - -

     A man crossed the street and approached me as I was puttering around in the front yard. He was dressed as the Grim Reaper, without a scythe, but still looked frightening. His face resembled mine, but that was his problem.
     “Hi. I'm Contrary Wise. I've read some of your essays and they make me laugh.”
     “I'm glad you like my jokes!”
     “No, your opinions are so dumb they make me laugh. You wrote the essay 'Pumpkin Pie In The Heat of July?', right?”
     “Yes, Contrary.”
     “You can call me Wise,” he interrupted. “Anyway, you realize that it's all garbage, right?”
     “Umm … .”
     “The whole idea is wrong. You were making fun of plastic flowers because you liked the changes that the seasons gave you with real flowers.”
     “Well, yeah. It's nice to see stuff you haven't seen for a year.”
     “Why don't you just get plastic flowers?”
     “After a few weeks just pull out the plastic flowers you have and stick in some different ones.”
     “I don't know. I never thought of that. But it's nice to see them grow up out of the ground.”
     “But you wouldn't have to wait. You could see the flowers right away.”
Silk and Plastic flowers at Michaels. Low maintenance.
     “Yes, but it's nice to see them coming up.”
     “If they didn't have flowers would you still plant azaleas?”
     “Crocuses? Daffodils? Tulips?”
     “So seeing them come up out of the dirt like undead zombies isn't the point. The flowers are. And with plastic ones you could have them right away.”
     “Well,” I leaned on my shovel, “the anticipation is nice.”
     He stared at me.
     “OK, that's over-rated,” I acknowledged. “Flowers have fragrance!” I was grasping at straws.
     He continued to stare at me.
     “Maybe azaleas don't,” I noted, “and hosta flowers don't, and heuchera flowers don't, and hellebore flowers don't ...” I tried to think of some that did. “Actually, if you kneel down in the mud you can smell Snowdrops and Crocuses. Snowdrops are a little spicy and Crocuses are a little sweet.”
     “Sounds like a smelling point,” he sneered. “And if you're a few more inches away?”
     “Then you have the anticipation of the scent! What do you have with plastic flowers?”
     “Spray-on perfume.”
     “Spray-on … that's stupid. Why would you do that?”
     “Beats kneeling in the mud with your nose 6 inches off the ground.”
     “But many plastic flowers have weird, unnatural colors.”
     “Let's hear it for variety!”
     “I can tell that you've never enjoyed the euphoria typified by a garden in spring.”
     “'euphoria typified'? Did you learn those words in essay-writing class?”
     I just glared at him.
     Then I countered, “You do meet some great people in garden clubs!”
     “Point taken. You're still 10 points behind.”
     “You're ignoring all the other benefits of gardening. It's great exercise, involving lifting, pulling and stretching.”
     “All available with a home gym. And no cold hands or muddy knees. Or mosquitoes.”
     “When you are working in the garden you forget all your other problems. You're just 'in the zone'. Very much like meditation.”
     “You could do real meditation on your living room rug. Still no cold hands, muddy knees or mosquitoes.”
     I thought some more. “Well, I am proud that I built something. I built a garden.”
     “Take a class in woodworking and build an end table.”
     “You know, you're deflecting the issue. Exercise, meditation and woodworking are all fine things. But if you're gardening you get the best of them all, simultaneously.”
     “You're deflecting the issue! You skipped away from plastic flowers, the soul of a 21st century garden. Buy them with your credit card and that's plastic growing plastic!”
     I wasn't getting anywhere with this guy who was thinking as fast as I was. How could I explain the satisfaction of hard work resulting in a fine looking garden? How could I explain any emotion?
     Contrary gave a satisfied, humorless grin. His hard work had given him the satisfaction of a debate win. I couldn't think of a smooth, devastating rejoinder. Maybe violence is the answer. Sometimes.
     He had me stumped. Maybe tomorrow I'll go by the variety store and look at some plastic flowers. Not to buy, of course. Just to look … .

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

They've Got It Easy

They've Got It Easy

            Fiction writers have it so easy!

            They can grab readers, squeeze them, shake them, hold them upside-down over a lava pit, and the emotional content of their writing will make a connection that keeps the pages turning.

Some favorite fiction
            Non-fiction writers generally don't have such tools. Imagine you were writing a manual covering the operations on a spreadsheet. Heart-stopping, right? Or suggesting that a gardener consider a group of plants that might be small, but look good on a border. You could say, “And they really look good along the border!” Kinda grabs you right here, doesn't it?

            Fiction writers can put the buzz in our emotions. Love (of any type), fear (the monster's chasing me!), hunger (those pancakes …), devotion (my life is dedicated to ...), hope (things will get better), angst (oh, what will become of me?), pain (that really hurt!), loss (my life has no meaning now …), and a few others that they are happy to use to manipulate our attention span.

            As a non-fiction writer I'm frustrated (an emotion!) by the smaller number of arrows in my quiver.

            This futility has to stop. Starting now, my essays will display a full range of emotions and connect with the readers on a deeper level, or at least jack up their hormone levels. Wait, that last is too technical and unemotional. Note to editor: scratch that last line.

            To put the new me on display, I offer the following non-fiction essay about my garden, annotated for ease of study:
            Approaching the tall row of azaleas in full flower, the sun over my right shoulder catches them in a montage of blaze and shadow. It warms them from the cool morning into the sparkling day, as I am warmed by their beauty. (That's LOVE being demonstrated now, for those of you whose attention has wandered.)

            As I look up to follow the flight of a chickadee, I'm shocked to see a large, dead branch hovering over hosta, scheming to mash the mortals below. (That's FEAR. Are you taking notes?) Maybe it won't ever fall. (FALSE HOPE)

            I should go in and call a tree surgeon, but stomach-rumblings remind me that breakfast is waiting, so first things first. (And now, HUNGER.) Trapped between the strong chords that pull me toward the phone to save the hosta I've slaved over for so many of my days (DEVOTION) and the equally strong desire to have some pancakes with butter and syrup (Yeah, that's HUNGER again) I'm frozen between incisive action and indigestion. Oh, what will become of my poor plants? (ANGST)

            Clearly, both paths require turning back toward the house, but as I stride purposefully onward to do one of those two things, the ground rises to meet me and smacks me in the face! (PAIN) I've tripped over my hose! No, not my socks, the other kind. Who put that there? (QUERULOUS) Yeah, I did. (SHAME) I'm going to feel really embarrassed (EMBARRESSMENT) when people see how I'll have to go through life with all of those scars on my nose. (LOSS) Who knows? But I'll face up to it! (RESOLUTE). So I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again! (REMINISCENCE from an old Sinatra song.)

            After such a taxing, but fractionally enjoyable, morning I'm euphoric (EUPHORIA) and head back inside, trying to remember what I was going to do there. (QUERULOUS again; or, maybe advancing age.) Ah, yes, breakfast. But …

            “I burnt my pancakes!” (DISBELIEF, LOSS, ANGST, HUNGER and especially, SOUL CRUSHING HORROR!”)

            And then, adding insult to my previous injuries, I remember the original purpose of my morning's journey:

            Marching over to the 'Red Ruffles' azalea, I choose a flower, wipe off some pollen from its anther, then rub that pollen on the pistil to make seeds for planting next year. (You've been waiting so long for: SEX!)