Saturday, January 19, 2019



            Many years ago, when my collection of plants was small, I tried to get the best azaleas. I knew that large, red flowers, completely covering a bush, would be the best. I've chronicled elsewhere my search for such. I thought I knew what was best. Maybe I shouldn't have been so dogmatic. The concept of “best” isn't simple.

The BEST landscape view, in my opinion. Tunnel View, Yosemite, May 2009

 For example:

            We're obsessed with celebrating the best. Who, or what, is the best of maybe thousands. Second best is largely forgotten.

            Pro Football fans will remember many Super Bowl winners but struggle when recalling the loser, who would rank second that year of 32 teams.

            How would you compare baseball players Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey, Jr.? Mantle had several seasons better than any one of Griffey's, but personal failings limited his number of years. Griffey performed at a high level for many years. Performance is measured by “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR). From 1952 to 1962 Mantle was the best or one of the best. This was followed by a rapid decline. Ken Griffey, Jr. was a star from about 1990 to 2007, never reaching as high as Mantle, but close.

            Bobby Fischer was the best chess player of his time, not only based on rating, but also a World Championship. The man he beat, Boris Spassky, never attained the height of Fischer's rating, but was still a World Champion and a feared Grandmaster for many more years than Fischer's brief dominance.

            Who's the best writer? Do you think that Leo Tolstoy or George Orwell had #1 best sellers?
             The best singer? In both categories, we can list people who have been one-hit-wonders but had no staying power. Are they better than artists who have never attained the top standing, despite being “one-of-the-best” for decades? Bruce Springsteen and “Martha and the Vandellas” reached “only” #2 on Billboard.

            There are no metrics for comparing the best artists, philosophers, politicians, or eccentrics (sorry, didn't mean to repeat myself). Every period of history has examples of those unrankable categories, even with a NY Times bestseller list available, or a Christie's Auction measuring value in dollars.

            A transitive relation says: if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C.             Unfortunately, real life has many non-transitive relationships. Suppose Oklahoma beats Texas in football. Then Texas beats Ohio State. Logically, Oklahoma is better than Ohio State. When Ohio State beats Oklahoma, we see that sports, and much of life, is non-transitive. It happens all the time.

            Another example: voting. With candidate A getting 40% of the vote, B getting 35%, and C winning 25%, voters have chosen A as the winner. But if voters only chose between A and C, then C would win. How is that possible? Well, one way would be that voters for B, no longer able to vote for her, choose to back C, who would get 60% of the vote. Voters for C really don't like A. It happens all the time.

            The mathematical concept of a lattice is another example with items which can be ranked, but not necessarily compared.

            More important to me than the above are azaleas.

            Some plants in my garden massively cover themselves with flowers and are a focal point. Approaching the plant, you realize that each individual flower is not special in any way.

            On the flip side, there are some plants with intricate, multi-colored flowers that bear slow inspection. But (you knew there was a “but” coming) the plants are scraggly and uninteresting.

            Which of the two categories of plants is the “best?”

            In my garden, if a new bed could host hosta, ferns, and heucheras, everything would be fine. If only one type could appear, then hosta, which are larger, would be my choice. But if I could only have one plant there, heucheras would get my vote. Though small, they are much more colorful! Which do I think is best?

            Perhaps the concepts of “best,”, “We're Number One!” and “Champion” need to be retired, living out their lives on the porch, watching the world happily go by without them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Oh, by the way ...

 I've started a new blog, appearing more frequently with a lot fewer words, and a lot more pictures at

The Garden Edge

Enjoy the holidays!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Early to Rise

Early to Rise

      I prefer flowers that bloom in early spring. Not for any emotional reasons, but for reason reasons. The convoluted explanation follows:

      You don't have to talk me out of winter. I'm way ahead of you. It wasn't in my plans to shiver in the cold, but life turned that way. Strangely, some people, somewhere, enjoy it.

      I spent some time in Wisconsin, wearing everything I owned, all at once. Before visiting that state, my guess was that everyone must be saving for a move. Strangely, they loved winter. Ice skating, hockey, skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, snowball fights, igloos. OK, nobody suggested igloos, but I may not have interviewed enough people. Of course, this is the result of self-selection, as those with “thinner blood” had migrated south.

      I'm sure that everyone in Seattle loves coffee, to get through the dark, drizzly days, and beer to get through the dark, drizzly nights. A guess? No, I said I was sure. Sun lovers escaped to California (a true fact, as told to me by a Californian visiting Oregon at the same time I was. Too plausible to doubt.)

      My wife and I met in New England, but the cold, dark winters drove us south to the Mid-Atlantic states. A good idea, but we missed by a few hundred miles, as the winters here are still too long, too cold (and too dark) for us. Too late, now.

Some of my earliest azaleas
      The above explains why I've developed a preference for early blooming plants. After suffering through the grays, browns and whites of winter, any other color is in demand. Winter Jasmine's tiny yellow flowers would be ignored at greener times than late winter. Crocus' are an early treat, with yellows and purples. They overlap with the latest snows and the earliest azaleas. Hellebores, whose flowers are barely there, are still appreciated.

      Once again, any color will do, but there are more whites, pinks and orangy-reds among the early azaleas than are found later in the year. Not my favorite colors, but at that time of year I'll take them. Daffodils fill the bill as bright additions. Blue-and-white Speedwell covers the ground. Iris' add complex purple flowers to the mix.

      Early flowers have other good attributes: they grow in cool conditions, so they last longer. The ground is well saturated from the winter snow melt, so they don't dry out quickly. Fungus, such as petal blight, comes in mid-May, so early azalea flowers don't suffer from that malady.

      As the season progresses, the weather warms and dries, providing fewer blooms. Early summer daylilies will demand favoritism. Late summer milkweed will claim butterflies to grab attention, but in autumn I'm already looking forward to the end of the next winter, and those colors impossibly popping from the cold, wet earth.

Monday, November 19, 2018



I've returned from a weekend trip to the Philly area and now I'm thinking about “flow”. There was a river behind my hotel which I would have liked to explore for birds, but time flowed too fast to allow such a river-flow digression.

However, a digression: I'm a member of a book-study group that lives on digressions and I recently mentioned the books on flow written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (last name pronounced, I kid you not, “Chick sent me high” - if I made that up no one would believe me). I'm not going to talk about that type of “flow” which involves focusing attention, though the concept is worthwhile. But, I digress …

Just as water is made of H2O molecules, which flow around each other, so traffic is made of vehicles which flow around each other. Except when I drive to Philadelphia. Word travels ahead of me and incantations are invoked to stem that flow, so I spend large amounts of time studying the interior of my car and unsuccessfully trying to peer around that stupid SUV in front. Traffic flow gets my attention for its absence.

Once I reach the convention, narrow hallways between the rooms constrict the human flow. Your first thought would be that you could meet a lot of interesting people in that closeup environment, but the truth is that everyone is late and pushing through. So we remain strangers.

The in-hotel restaurant handles flow well, except for those breakfast and dinner times when we all demand to be served. Then I look around and make poor jokes about getting out of line and simply having a candy bar for dinner, getting weak laughs from people within earshot. After ten minutes, however, I get out of line, buy a candy bar and continue on to a panel discussion that started ten minutes earlier.

Oh, “what about gardening?” you say. Well, I'm getting there, with a confession. After reincarnation, I plan on coming back as a ditch digger. You see, I really dig digging in the ditches which border my property. My neighbors don't really keep up with them and they fill with debris (the ditches, not the neighbors.) Flooding rains force me to dig, releasing enough water so that the azaleas and hosta aren't killed. Nature wants to put water lilies in those spots. Over the years, some beds have sunk and, by not raising them, I've allowed plants to die. This winter the Satsuki bed will have to be raised about four inches or so.
Wapama Falls, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, Yosemite, CA May 20, 2008 I did NOT dig the dirt releasing that water.

I get a surprisingly strong satisfaction from sinking my shovel into the final load of muck, releasing stagnant water, forming a healthy stream. I really like that. Did I say that before? I don't remember.

I came back from my trip today in early afternoon. By late afternoon I was digging in the southeast ditch. After talking with my neighbor, I had the ditch on his side of the fence to myself as he did wheelies on his riding mower, denuding the lawn of leaves. Luckily he agreed to throw the leaves over the fence onto my leaf pile. In five years it will be compost for top dressing the azaleas. But I hardly noticed. After two hours of lifting muck, roots and leaves, and watching the water move slowly toward the drain by the road, it began to get dark and was time to quit. How could two hours pass so quickly? Completely the opposite of the traffic jam, I was so focused that time didn't exist. I simply enjoyed the experience. Just as Csikszentmihalyi said. But, I just said that I wasn't going to talk about his book …

Friday, October 19, 2018

Garden Harder, Not Smarter

Garden Harder, Not Smarter

I was horrified.

It's easy to horrify me. Newspapers and TV news succeed daily. I expect it.

What I didn't expect was to read a gardening newsletter today and find feelings of horror reawakened. An article titled “Garden Smarter, not Harder,” was reprinted from another newsletter, so clearly more than one person liked it. Perhaps you've read many of these listings of clever ways to do things quickly and without effort. In no time at all you're on the coach, feeling that you've earned the next three hours of beer, chips and TV golf.

You want to work smarter in the garden? Use a computer!

No, no, NO! If I listed below all the articles in magazines and newspapers, as well as self-help books explaining the value of exercise, the internet would be full and shut down. OK, if you argue that shut down's a good thing, I'll listen.

There are so many studies showing our life span extending with more exercise, as well as our health span, there is hardly an argument against activity.

I remember a very old joke: “I get my exercise going to the funerals of my friends who exercise.” Well, at least the jokester is getting some exercise.

Running and walking are still the best, most time-efficient exercises.

Don't use a wheelbarrow to carry sticks to the compost pile. Make two trips and carry them in your arms. The walking is a credit toward your future. Carrying the wheelbarrow, is even better.

A riding mower? Seriously? A gardener shouldn't have masses of grasses. Turn the area into a large patch of azaleas and hosta. Year-by-year, shrink the grassy areas until they're just paths through your garden beds. Then a push-mower will be fine. Don't push me or I'll go on about how a push-mower still beats a riding mower: muscle exercise of calves, thighs, glutes, pecs, forearms. Good for the heart, lungs, digestive system. You'll sleep better, too.

When age and prior injuries make it difficult to do something, do it anyway, but slower. Dig that hole with a trowel, not a shovel. With a spoon, not a trowel. Whatever you can manage. You're not late for anything when you're gardening; you're involved; in the moment.

A garden is never done. That's the fallacy of a landscape architect. The entrepreneur struts in, creates a garden with a pile of hardscape, patio furniture and plants from a big box store, then walks away with a check in her purse. Done.

No, no, NO! A gardener's garden is never finished. Improve the soil in the beds. Replace a good plant with a better one. Move one that doesn't look so good over there to a place by the ferns. Trim a couple of branches to let in more light. Prune some bushes to make them appear more dense. (But, if you make them look like gumballs, I'm coming after you. I know where you live.)

Skip the power equipment. If cutting up the fallen branch with a hand saw takes three days instead of one, OK.

Planning a new bed, digging the hole, mixing the soil for it, planting, mulching, and watering the new arrivals may take months. OK. But, do it by hand.

Don't forget to invite me over to see the results. I'm waiting, camera in hand, and I won't be horrified!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018



      Surprises engage our memory and attention as routines can not. They almost seem to alternate between good and bad. For example:

Turning around mindlessly and suddenly facing a mass of color from an azalea swarm.

A long drought where you suddenly realize that the whole garden needs watering. NOW!

A late snow on newly opened flowers; an attractive juxtaposition, photo-worthy for remembering years later.

A deep, heavy snow that breaks tree limbs and the branches of bushes, leaving visible scars years later.

Azaleas with flowers in November or December, when those plants were expected to go to sleep.
Tripping while jogging or slipped while gardening.

Photographing a giant, colorful garden spider with a dew-covered web in the first rays of the sun.
Discovering last night's deer damage.
What's that weird thing? Surprise! It's a Luna Moth hanging upside down under a rose bush leaf!

A large dragonfly warming up in the morning chill, resting on a favorite plant.

A squirrel running up my pant leg while avoiding the charge of another, sharp claws digging in, unaware I'm not a tree until I bend over and scream at it.

Finding a garter snake, harmlessly wrapped around the roots of a small azalea being transplanted, both ready to share their sleep through the winter.

Planting some Japanese Maple seeds and, two years later, still waiting for them to emerge. A slow motion disappointment.

Receiving a free plant in the fall called 'Boring Pink' and discovering the next spring that its flowers are bright white with red flecking exploding all over. Like being asked to move from coach into First Class to “balance the plane”.

      Photographs delude us, pretending we well remember people and places from our past. Surprises create true memories, recreated in detail. For a moment, we are in the experience: cold wind, warm sun and all.

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Garden of the Future

The Garden of the Future

            I wish I could sprinkle some magic dust on a seedling in the morning and have a 12' plant, beaming with flowers, by afternoon. I wish every plant in the garden were impervious to disease, drought and predators. I wish there were special glasses to make every flower look great to the observer, no matter who was wearing them or what his favorite colors were. I wish vegetables were grown to taste, such as bacon-flavored cucumbers or mango-infused corn. Those wishes won't be answered for a long time.
            The following thoughts, though, involve improvements that could be available now given the total dedication in finances, manpower and time of the government. Worthy endeavors all.

            RFID chips for rapid identification: It would be great to just point a wand at a plant and immediately know everything about it. I actually looked into these a few years ago after I discussed the idea with someone at a convention. While the expense was manageable, the hassle of programming for each plant, creating the chip, and burying it deeply enough to discourage squirrels, but shallow enough to be read easily by a wand, was too much. Also, setting up the database with easy entry of plant info such as name, hybridizer, flower and habit characteristics, date of planting, transplanting history, etc., was complex. In fact, it would be great if I could just pass the new plant in front of my hand-held DNA analyzer, discovered yesterday as a prize in a box of cereal. The data would be automatically loaded and backed up to the cloud. This is likely to be available sooner than other tools, below.

            Virtual Reality tours: Video games let you wander through an imaginary world. Let's create that world as your garden looks, at its best. Record every aspect, turning in every direction from every spot and then, when cold January comes around, July for Aussies, simply strap on your headset and view the garden in color with stereo vision and stereo sound. Tilt the joystick to move any way you wish at any point in the yard and remember how it was, and will be again. Look up to see the Cardinal among the crab apple blossoms, or the Red-shouldered Hawk enjoying the clouds. Look down to see the heucheras, ferns and hosta. Would it be too extreme to also breathe in the spring perfumes?

            Compact explosives to dig holes: Given some of these shaped charges, I would make my holes deeper and wider than I currently have the energy for. In fact, the grassy areas of my shady yard would quickly become a memory as those poorly growing blades would be replaced by shade-loving ground covers and larger bushes. But not English Ivy. I couldn't find any county permits for exploding one's suburban back yard.

A table-top Cyclotron at Houghton College. Photo by Tim Koeth from
            A Table-Top Cyclotron: Casually wander into your garden shed and irradiate piles of seeds or pollen. Who knows what mutants will be produced from this? Such machines already exist, and would be great to get one from Amazon for $79.99 and start a mad-scientist eruption of hybrids in your back yard. They all would be different than your neighbor's plants, and a few might even be keepers. Getting a license for a nuclear reactor on your workbench might be the obstacle here. I should try to get a license for the compact explosives first.

            Genetically modified plants that glow at night: Why enjoy our flowers only in the daytime?  How about taking genes that control bio-luminescence from lightning bugs or fish and put them into our plants? I've seen videos of lightning bugs in the Amazon filling many trees and all flashing in sync. Wouldn't it be great to have your whole yard flashing that way? Or different beds flashing in their own rhythms? Or choreographed to music? And the colors change with the rhythm? That's all done now with Christmas lights. I want my azaleas to do that, too!

            Hunter-Killer Drones: Each of 100 sub-miniature drones in your yard would be equipped with an audio detector for seeking out mosquitoes, and a laser for shooting them down. After clearing the yard of those pests the drones would be reprogrammed to hunt down flies. It would take a little more engineering to zap ragweed pollen, but that's just a simple matter of programming.

            None of the above are physically impossible and could be implemented with sufficient political muscle. We need to encourage the governments of the world to fund the pleasures of creation by forming the Garden Party and electing our own bed of candidates!