Fix-It Fixations

Any homeowner or even mildly obsessed apartment-dweller who likes customizing his or her nest, office, cubicle, or living space knows that there are numerous ‘projects’ that are never officially finished. Most DIY projects of any sort, in fact, are only satisfying right about the time they’re in their last stages of preparation and very, very newly finished. Then we’re on to the next change or update we’ve been itching to see transform our spaces. For me, the Next Big Thing is perpetual: I never quite settle down and stop having new ideas and fantasies. My now-spousal partner knew even before my dad jokingly warned him when we sprang the (not especially surprising) news of our intent to marry that it was not merely in jest Dad told him to expect to come home virtually any day of the week and find the furniture moved all over the place, half the house painted, or the chairs reupholstered. Thank goodness he’s a very flexible, tolerant guy…of course, he wouldn’t be with me in the first place if that weren’t true.Photo: The '70s Called...

Nowadays I’m lazier and less willing to spend much money on concrete Stuff if I can save it instead for our various retirement plots and plans or spend on current doings. But the urge never dies; there’s always some little tweak or To Do lurking in the back corners of my brain’s attic. The one thing I’ve learned to appreciate better about the process is the slowness of it all that used to irk me immensely. Over the intervening time between idea and execution, the possibility of improving both process and product grows, and in many instances, the availability of a better set of materials and solutions arrives as well. Though I had in mind a nifty reboot of the existing dining room fixture that was, sadly, thwarted by the outdated wiring’s channels being too narrow for me to fit the necessary updated wiring through them, my time pulling apart and cleaning and fiddling with  the entire fixture in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass the problem was long enough for a more suitable modern fixture to at last appear on the market at a price I was willing to pay.Photo: Let There be Better Light!

Likewise, the wildflower and sapling “nursery” meadow I made out of half our backyard a couple of years ago has taken that long to begin coming to recognizable fruition as such a space instead of merely a raggedy weed patch. The time spent waiting for the (semi-dead, weak little one-dollar end of season) plants I picked up here and there to take root enough to survive longer term, let alone bloom, was well worth it, since those were not seasons of rich encouragement. This year’s mild winter and spring and its extraordinarily generous rainfall are providing a much friendlier environment for the plants now old and established enough for bloom to make their first appearances. So, though you can’t see it behind the blast of rose blooms in the last photo, there have been much more encouraging bursts of growth on a number of patches of chrysanthemums, Echinacea leaves, and myriad wild cousins, with some Salvia and Cynoglossom amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) throwing bright blue sparkles into the mix of pink primroses and green leafy things even before others come into bud.Photo: A Long Winter's Nap

Kind of the way that one new idea breaks in upon the muddle of all the old ones stirring in the brain while they wait to be put in order for becoming DIY projects and household fixes.Photo: Spring has Sprung

Just a Second

Photo: Newness 1

What do you see? It’s not a trick question, only an invitation to look for the small and temporary delights right at hand. Newness and beauty are present all around us.

For all that we think of lives as finite and fleeting and time, constantly racing by, I don’t think we take it so seriously when we tell someone who’s waiting for us, “just a second.” After all, so much can happen in a second or less, yes, evening in a millisecond, as we can now measure it. Races are won and lost by the tiniest increments of time. On one side of the little mark signifying a clock’s second-long increments is the Now, and before the very thought of it is completed, Now already resides on the other side of the mark.

Photo: Newness 2

Dead stems of the past give birth to lively leaflets for the season to come…

No matter how protracted the process leading up to it, one nanosecond is the last one I will spend alive, and the next one will be the first one in which I’m dead. The thought has no moral value one way or another, and not much emotional value either, since as soon as it is likely to seem fully important to me in the most urgent of terms, it’ll be all done.

The only real value for me, in practical terms, is if I invest enough thought in this very moment of being still alive to commit to being wide awake as well: deeply present, and grateful for all of the good that is in my life at every piece of time I’m granted along the way. Whether it’s thanks to honoring spiritual values in the practice of mindfulness or it’s because I’m keenly aware of those lives that, however brightly they’ve burned, were far too short, it matters little unless I take advantage of the perspective these afford me and live my own life more richly because of it. Regardless of how I choose to spend this magnificent currency of breath and sentience and health and hope, even if it’s on sitting on a park bench and holding hands with my beloved (one of the highest and best things I know how to do, to be sure), making a conscious and committed choice is well worth the effort, and following through, all the better.

Just now, the value of mindful living in the present is particularly lovely because we are on the cusp of spring here in north Texas. And if you’ve read even a few of my locale-related posts, you can appreciate just how fleeting and tenuous is the very idea of springtime and how ephemeral its joys. I would be a fool to be so encumbered by longing for things past or worrying about things yet to come that I don’t pause, however briefly, to savor the wonder of what these treasured nano-joys can bring to my existence.

Photo: Newness 3

Out of death, life. The cheery pumpkins and gourds brightening the fading allure of the autumn garden have in turn rotted, dried, and decayed—but from their secretive hearts, the burst of seed and greenery returns to begin it all again…

When Too Much is Just Right

We are taught from childhood that excess is inherently negative. Certainly, as a trained artist, I had a certain version of that idea reinforced throughout my studies. But thankfully in that training, there was also the affirmation that part of the purpose of knowing the rules and boundaries thoroughly, and especially the valid reasons for those having been codified as The Way to Do Things, is so that when we choose to break the rules, cross those bounds, and color outside the lines, we will do so intelligently and with purpose as well.

Otherwise there would be no invention at all.

Imagine if those who developed the magnificent decorative beauties of the art and designs prevailing in Art Nouveau work had always held back and refrained from going a bit beyond the norms, never mind whether any of the magnificently ridiculous extremes of the Baroque and Rococo would have bloomed in the darkness. Think, if you dare, of a world where experimentation and thinking outside the proverbial box were forbidden: would any of the useful, meaningful, and beautiful inventions that save lives and enrich them ever have happened?

This idea can be expressed on a much smaller and more modest scale, too. Why not let our joy in excess sometimes shout its existence for others to bask in its reflected glow!

Over the Top

An iconic sight along the edge of Alki Beach in Seattle, this home has grown, literally, into a garden of earthly delights that we all enjoy as we pass along our ways. Sometimes being ‘over the top’ is the perfect solution.

Another Wild Hare

When we revisited the lovely Bellevue Botanical Gardens with Mom and Dad Sparks this summer, there were some excellent new elements to enjoy throughout the park. As always, the plantings were bursting with color and perfume and native beauty, but in addition there was a handsome new educational and administrative building complex in the entrance of the place, a splendid new suspension footbridge spanned the ravine in the most thoroughly naturalized section of the gardens, and the progress in that segment toward fuller removal of the invasive plants is more impressive than ever.

One new addition we enjoyed on this visit to the Botanical Gardens was not listed anywhere in the visitors’ pamphlets, as far as I could see, but no less delightful, welcome, natural and local: a pert little wild rabbit who sat nibbling the grass next to the biggest flowerbed in the middle of that pretty afternoon. Never let it be said that there’s nothing new under the sun.
Photo: Funny Bunny

Blowing through the Wild Grasses

Weed or wildflower? Messy or naturalized? Everyone has an opinion, and they often differ distinctly on the same little plant or plot. Part of the pleasure of good company will always be in its variety and the interest that it brings to life. Gardening tastes are very much in that vein.

Digital illustration: Wild Grasses

As a sometime gardener, however amateur, I can think of few styles of landscaping that I don’t find appealing and attractive in their own ways. I admire the near-perfection of elaborate, formal palace gardens and magnificent, fountain-filled parks with their follies and allees. I am fond of a rustic campfire-side bramble patch, punctuated by straggly hydrangeas run wild, down by the lakeside. There is both soul refreshment and eye appeal for me in a delicate Zen garden with bonsai, laceleaf maples and a barely rippling koi pond.

When it comes to my own gardens, I tend to walk just a little farther on the wild side. I hate to fiddle and fuss at length with the hard labor of a garden. I greatly prefer the genteel pleasures of the design of the garden, and perhaps the occasional artistic pruning to shape a rhododendron or sapling tree. But I’m not so wild about back-breaking rock picking and digging; I moved from incredibly rich but equally rocky volcanic glacial till of western Washington to the cement-like red clay of Texas, both places where putting a one-gallon root ball into the ground requires a pickaxe.

My first garden was an exploration of the beauties of cottage style gardening. Washington, temperate and moist, was ideal for a grand assortment of bulbs, flowering shrubs and cutting flowers, so I had profuse blooms and constant green with little effort. The traditional cottage style allowed me to squeeze a massive amount of lively growth into a normal city house lot, and the more I wedged into the ground, the less room there was for volunteer and invasive plants. Weeds had a tough go of it there, so it wasn’t especially hard to keep ahead of them.

There are plants I don’t invite to my parties. Much as I enjoy and admire most, I’m no friend of those pest plants that choke out others, cause massive allergies, or stab at me with cruel thorns, or those that threaten entire ecosystems, mine or others’. Good riddance to misplaced English Ivy, kudzu, poison oak and wild blackberry canes. Conversely, one of my particular favorite garden options is to find ways to encourage native plants to thrive. The more a plant is suited and accustomed to its environs, the more it will grow and be healthy and attractive and weed-proof.

Texas has reinforced that love in my aggressively. It’s a harsher climate than the Pacific Northwest’s in which I now garden, so what I plant and tend must needs be up to surviving and flourishing in those more demanding circumstances—or die. Even desert plants don’t necessarily have what it takes, since north Texas can still get true freezes in winter, and occasional snow, hail and ice. This last winter, a relatively mild one, still killed off a lot of specimen agaves and prickly pears and even cut some mighty oaks down to size.

I’m finding that the area’s status as an extension of the country’s central prairies may be the key to what will survive and grow here long term. When anything will grow, that is. I’m tending to my little wildflower meadow out back, to see if I can’t reintroduce something a little more self-sustaining than those long cultivated but seldom successful hard turf lawns that were popular in our area and surrounded our house when we bought it. Even better than the wildflowers, I’m finding, will be the ‘amber waves of grain’ I seeded in  among the wildflowers, the native prairie grasses.

Prairie grasses have some of the deepest, toughest and most tenacious root systems of any type of plants, and along with the leaves that sway in every breeze, often creating symphonies of susurration, they go to seed in many attractive ways. So I really am enjoying ‘sowing my wild oats.’ And Little Bluestem, Fountain Grass, Weeping Lovegrass, and many more. My backyard creatures will enjoy them, and their varicolored, many-textured attractions will beat any struggling, forced lawn that ever tried to eke out a living where its native cousins once roamed free.

Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

Back in Business

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It may not look like much yet…

Spring has fully returned to north Texas. That means repeated visitations from wind and tornado warnings, thunderstorms that lead to flash floods, and threats of baseball sized hail. More often, though, it means warm temperatures and plants seeming to grow 50% taller in a day. And it brings on bud, leaf and bloom with a flourish that reminds me how showy and productive a Texas garden can be at its—however brief—peak.

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Will you think me impertinent if I show you my bloomers?

A Saturday outing is splashed with roadside waves of Showy Primrose, Paintbrush and Bluebonnets, and the trees are bursting with a dense, cheering liveliness that belies the likelihood of a relatively short span of such intense lushness.photo montage

Our own garden is reawakening, sending up promises left and right of everything from capsicum and tomato, parsley and kale to the same primrose standard-bearers ushering in roses, Salvia and Echinacea. The saplings garnered of the city’s largesse in the annual tree giveaway—redbud, Mexican Plum and Texas Ash, to date—are awakening as well. Though the odd temperature fluctuations and ice storms this winter hindered their bloom, they are leafing out in style. And as much as I’ve been known to vilify and slander all of squirrel-dom as thieving rats, I will grant them all manner of amnesty for their one generous act of planting acorns across our property and providing a welcome lagniappe of oak seedlings in my planters for the increase of our little backyard grove.

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I’m up to my irises in spring bloom…

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Can you blame me for being dazzled?

For shorter-term flair, it would be hard to argue with iris as my chief fancy at this time of year. Always a favorite flower for both my partner and me, it was the centerpiece of our wedding design, courtesy of Mom’s garden, and an indulgent purchase last fall in the form of a self-gifted bunch of fans for the garden here. Along with the classic lavender bearded and highly perfumed variety given us by a dear friend, the newcomers are flourishing in their bed in the front corner of our lot, and I am wholly enamored of their flashy, curling flounces and the radiant tendrils of their beards. The graphic drama sustained by their swordlike leaves after the flowers pass is a pleasing bonus of irises’ appeal, but the magnificence of a bed in full bloom will always be one of my most beloved signs that this season of nature’s great exuberance is in full swing, a grand hurrah in floral form.photo