We are not alone in our finitude. All of nature conspires to whisper this solemn truth in our ears if we will only listen. Everything we know will one day die and dissipate like a summer morning’s mist. Why should we grieve our own mortality?If we love life, it’s only natural that we would regret to leave it, and yet……how much loveliness is in the fluttering-down exhalation of decay! Without that poignant and exquisite sigh, what would feed the roses of next year? I’m in no rush to die; I hope there’s plenty of time ahead for me to have a lively, fruitful life. But I think, too, that my last task is to renew, to bring my modest tenure here to a far more fruitful end, and to leave space and time and love and life to all the generations of our heirs. I’ve no children of my own, but my niece and my nephews, my students’ children, my friends’–and all of the people yet to come–shall, if I have my way, have their summers of long life, and have their roses, too.
I’m thinking about flowers. [I’m not talking about my cousin’s family, though they’d be a welcome sight in this part of the world as much as any!] Perhaps it’s because, here in Texas, signs of sprouting, budding and even outright blooms are beginning to show all around us: the flowering pear trees are starting to burst like giant batches of popcorn, my infant fringeflower is sporting a deep fuchsia-colored tassel or two, and even the local redbud trees are bravely showing off glimpses of their own hot pinks and purples. It may also be that the influence of a few days spent recently on seasonal cleaning and prep in our yard brings, along with the seasonal sneezing and watering of the old eye-bulbs, the welcome scent of earth and sightings of green specks that seem to increase in size while I watch, reminds me of spring and summers past and favorite blossoms I eagerly await on their return. The recent speedy trip to San Antonio, just enough farther south from us to be a week or two ahead in the race to renew its flora, certainly enhanced my longing for the sight of flowers while it was giving me its own preview. And of course, there’s simply the persistent infatuation with all-things-growing that grips me year-round that might be one of the main instigators of this present hope.
Too Early to be Called Springtime
Leaning back into the shade
Next to a mirror foxed with age but
Gleaming still with that low glint,
Mercurial, that holds onto its ghosts—those
Pale vapors that have passed
Through the pavilion and its garden greens,
Have dreamed while leaning in
This selfsame shade
Of fading memory and of
Incipient bloom, in this
Just-waking secret garden—
Here I will stay at rest, a shade myself
In the pale green gloaming
Along with all of the other, perfectly legitimate and obvious, reasons that I celebrate every year when I am remembering the arrival of my next-younger sister on her birthday–the first one remembered mostly anecdotally given my tender years on the occasion, and all of the subsequent ones fitting days for delighting in the gifts with which her continued presence graces me and all of her circle of influence so consistently–I rejoice in the greater sense of appreciation for nature that she has given me.She is something of a bouquet herself. Indeed, she is beautiful in the way of pretty things throughout nature, and also filled with liveliness and energy and purpose and growth that inspire me and amaze me regularly. I look on her as an enhancement of the world a little like a human bloom in its garden, unfolding each day and year with new surprises and joys that reinforce the very image of goodness in life.In a more concrete way, with her love of the outdoors and its grand presents, pleasures and promises she has taught me and continues to teach me to appreciate the natural world as well. As much as our garden-genie mother shared her love of interacting with the created spaces in nature and even getting outdoors appreciatively on day hikes, in parks and on strolls wherever we could, the number-three sister in our quartet has given me yet greater love and sympathy for the breadth and depth of possibility in all those realms of nature and more. I will never keep up with my sister’s skill and prowess when it comes to being physically ‘outdoorsy’ as athlete, gardener or explorer, but every time I step out any door into the untrammeled world, I do and will see much of it as a living bouquet paying tribute in return to one of nature’s loveliest flowers.Happy birthday, my dear sister, and I send you these little pictures and words in token of my love that spans from your first blooming in the world to the end of my seasons.
There are numerous living things that spend time up in the trees besides the trees’ branches and leaves. All sorts of insects and animals, not least of all various nutty sorts of anthropoid mammals that might be not only cousins of ours but a little more similar to us in character than we generally wish to acknowledge. There are, of course, also those companion plants we know as parasites and, more mellifluously, their subtler siblings the epiphytes.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a pleasant enough excuse for familiarity with such entities, but mistletoe isn’t necessarily a specially handsome bit of greenery on its own, being a modest clump of small leaves with some inconspicuous pale berries clinging to them. Mistletoe, in fact, only really comes into its own in wintertime when the host oak trees shed their seasonal clothes and the puffs of the mistletoe’s tidy presence reveal themselves among the branches against the winter sky. This is not only reason enough for the plant to be a fitting representative for the winter holiday season but for us to appreciate it as a remarkable and pervasive and even likable presence in oak country, particularly since it does no notable harm to its host plant, unlike many parasites of all species.But if we’re to talk about the kinds of plants that make their homes in the trees, I’m even more of a fan of the epiphytes, many of which were only vaguely familiar to me some years ago thanks to occasional visits to botanical gardens and conservatories and parks. I find their ability to live, virtually, on air astounding and, somehow, poignant. Oh, I knew lichens and mosses and algae pretty well, what with living in the moist and miraculous Pacific Northwest among the old-growth rainforests and craggy granite faces and the richly green shores of Puget Sound and the ocean. But I can tell you that, like most people who live in treasuries, I knew the sparkle of the jewels but nothing of their true nature.
When I had closer contact with those parasites and epiphytes at last, it made for a short descent to fall in love. My lifetime romance with moss and seaweed expanded to welcome bromeliads and all sorts of pretty flowering epiphytes. I found all of that mighty attractive when I would get drawn in by the strangler figs and pulled into the pretty gloaming of the tropical house at the conservatory, the steamy glass room of the jungle displays at the horticultural center. So, so lovely. Then there was the trip to Panama. Ahhh, Panama.
Opportunity enough to see firsthand a whole lot of gorgeous bromeliads and previously unknown green joys in situ, to experience a whole new level of admiration for the variety and intricacy in the plant universe. Poinsettias, my natal flower as a December baby, meant little to a northern-born kid who’d only seen their showy bracts in hothouse display and known them merely as holiday decor: suddenly, on their own turf, I was able to learn that they can grow as tall as four meters and thrive like showy weeds in the sparest of small dirt patches. To see coffee growing in its accustomed shade on the slopes of a dormant volcano, overlooking rainbow-crowned valleys and orange plantations. And to look up into the cloud forest canopy and see tree trunks hugged all ’round by glorious orchids. Among the many wonders of the region, we stumbled into an orchid farm. Bliss!For one who had been impressed by but hardly addicted to orchids, to arrive in the environs of a farm specializing in orchids to the tune of about 2400 varieties was a stunning and heady shock of new delight. Finca Drácula, named for its showpiece orchid variety, was a superb baptism in the beauties of the breed. And yes, it did make me want to swing from the branches of the trees like my monkey cousins. What an irresistible lure is an orchid smiling down from the heights. Funny that the Christmas crop of mistletoe has led me the whole winding way to Panamanian orchid country. Then again, they could both inspire an urge to engage in frenzied kissing if one got caught up in their fantastic beauty.
Now that the temperatures are gradually sliding into what I consider survivable territory, it’s a lovely opportunity to go outdoors and simply take a leisurely stroll again. I was reminded of this on our little jaunt out to the west coast over Thanksgiving, when even though it was clammy and overcast and somewhat rainy it was a welcome thing to be able to step out the door and not be pushed back in by the blast furnace of the perpetual sun. I love sunshine, really I do, and I’m not sorry to live where I do just now, but it’s a delight to be able to get out and stretch my legs in the neighborhood without any necessity to dash for cover lest I turn instantly into cracklins.
This week, a walk through the surrounding neighborhood, exploring a few streets and walkways and pockets of this town that we’ve not seen before, was the perfect soother on a Saturday afternoon, and a rare treat at that. And it makes me plot further to spend some quality time over the brief winter cooling period just getting out to soak up the happy and calming atmosphere of our more tree-dense areas, our parks and lakes and ponds and the wonderful wild grasses and prairie native plants that make this such a good place to be. To simply step out on the patio from time to time and absorb the rustling leaf sounds of the backyard greenbelt and the obbligato of the birds whistling therein. To hike over to the university campus instead of having to take the shuttle just to survive the three and a half or so miles, and then once there not to need to tear indoors instantly.
I’m only too glad to have the opportunity to recall what is actually so great about the great outdoors and to relish the enchantments of a lightly ruffled pond or the distant competitive singing of a yard full of hounds or even, should I be outdoors and doing the right thing in the right spot at the perfectly right moment, to feel that exceedingly sharp joy found only when one is not enclosed by walls and roof. What a fine joy that can be indeed.
There’s always the possibility, when one is Out and About, of meeting a kindred spirit moving through the dimension with something like a parallel purpose. No matter how often this might happen, I don’t remember it very often when I embark. It takes that sudden moment of recognition in the presence of one to reawaken the spark of companionship and adventure that these confluences allow.Today my fellow traveler and I were both in search of tall grass, it seems. I’d gone to the home improvement store to buy cabinet latches, but having discovered recently that it’s the end of the main plant season at many such places here in north Texas, I always make room if I can for a few minutes’ perusal of the mark-down racks of plants; having determined that there’s no room in the budget for major garden renovation, I’m equally determined that I won’t leave the current yard completely untouched. The one-dollar bonanza becomes a greater than ever enticement.Last time I did that sort of shopping I was lucky enough to find a batch of half-dead baby crape myrtle plants marked down to almost nothing and in just a few days of careful and shaded watering and pruning I’ve managed to revive them to a surprising degree. With that encouragement, I dove back into the store’s leafy aisles and found, today, a half-dozen pots of scrawny native grasses. Hurray! Just what I’ve been seeking lately, once again. These, too, were far past their peak but potentially rescuable.
It was when I got up to the cashier’s counter that I looked down at my shopping cart and saw a big grasshopper gazing back at me. Whether with curiosity or challenge, I wasn’t quite sure: it had obviously grown ‘attached’ to the grasses I was carrying and mightn’t have been too well pleased that I rudely stole them from the shelves like that. But the bug wasn’t so awfully put out, after all, because it clearly enjoyed its new landing spot on my old carrying bag and enough so that it plainly didn’t want to let go when I tried to encourage such a move. It took me some serious effort to pluck the thing away from the bag, and I must admit I was moved to contemplate whether I might not have felt exactly the same had our positions been reversed.Yes, I still flicked the creature away. Our mild-to-nonexistent last winter here has left us with enormous populations of all sorts of insects, not least of all grasshoppers that in parts of Texas are reaching fairly near to Biblical plague proportions. I’ve seen plenty of evidence that while our grasshoppers haven’t yet reached such an outlandish census level, they’re in large enough forces that they’re lunching and munching exuberantly on our property as it is, so I didn’t see a great need to import yet another diner to our all-you-can-eat buffet.Now we shall see whether I can get these past-prime grasses I captured to revive enough to settle in thoroughly to their new home here. I don’t doubt there will be plenty of insects right on hand, not least of all more big, hardy grasshoppers, munching away on them as they grow here too. We’re all really on this big journey together, after all.
My friends, Texas gardening is a ceaseless adventure. I sense that Round One of the growth season has already closed and Round Two is beginning. The first batches of blooming goodies have quickly baked to dainty crisps and their leafy greenness gotten rather scrawny and lean looking. Yes, my darlings, it’s gettin’ hot around here.
The pavement and patio concrete have a certain handily dense solar mass that lends itself to emitting mirage-like rays of shimmering hottitude that fry up whatever seems to have escaped the downward dash of the sunlight as it fell burning from the sky in the first place. Hand watering with a hose, even in the cooler parts of the day, is an exercise in futility to a certain extent–you can practically see the spray evaporating as it comes out of the nozzle, and anything with full sun exposure makes me wonder if the roots of the plant in question will in fact be boiled in the water I’m trying to give it. Gives me a different perspective on the old saying about ‘killing with kindness’, to be sure.
The first burst of the rose blooms has passed and the buds are in place for their second coming after a couple of weeks of being pruned back and nurtured through their little rest period. The boxed herbs and vegetables are very thirsty and rather root-bound, so I shall have to ease their pain by some gentle dividing and see if they can continue to show their heroism in beating the heat. Even in their potted distress, the borage plants are putting out large trusses of those glorious blue, refreshing-flavored starry flowers, so I will hope all the more that a little judicious division or removal to allow them a little loosening of their too-tight pants will make them happy rather than prove an additional challenge.
I know that the garden creatures are happy. Besides having me to chew on, the insects have all sorts of plants, not least of all those greens that are heat-stressed and have their defenses down. Some of the little bugs are still shy, like the one just barely peering out of the peachy zinnia above. Most of them are quite happy to be a bit more brazen, though. My little green friend came to the window and hung out with me the other night quite willingly–or was it just staring and spying on me? The prize for showiness this week goes, though, to the handsome Carmine Darter (correct me if I mis-identify) dragonfly that calmly came and posed on my little homemade tomato cage so long that I could come out of the house and get up close and macro-personal with him.
Whatever else happens in my little playground here, the main development will likely be somewhat delayed by the depredations of my intended full-yard rehab and my entirely predictably inevitable mistakes and faux pas. And, of course, getting overheated. For the time being, I am enjoying the begonias, the silverbeet, the sweet potato vine, and the cyclamen; the marigolds, the basil, and the blue sage.
Maybe I should buy myself a big tall red conical hat (possibly made of concrete). Because I am not exactly the most useful object, not the most decorative, nor even perhaps the most whimsically amusing, in a garden. But I give it my best from time to time, really I do. And generally, the earth is pretty forgiving and responsive to my fumbling efforts.
For once, I paid attention to the promises of today’s rain; it’s not been terribly impressive thus far, but it has rained a teeny bit, so it was good to get things a little better in order out there and ready for some watering the day before the rain arrived. Not that I didn’t water it all thoroughly myself, at the end of my stint, since even if the plants hadn’t been so thirsty after all of my brash ministrations on a toasty afternoon, I needed a bit of rinsing too. Besides turning into a human saltwater fountain and being bespeckled by the colorful bite-marks of a seething mass of varied insect pests, I also collected plenty of bits and bobs of garden detritus in my hair, a nice thorough coating of fresh brown dirt all down the front of my clothes (with special emphasis on my mud-capped knees), and the handsome assortment of plant stains reaching up to my elbows, not to mention the weird black stain my cheap metal watchband makes on my wrist when its gets all slippery with sweat. I considered just turning the garden hose on myself full blast but opted for the slightly less neighbor-frightening method of going indoors and showering, after all. They’d suffered enough if they’d just seen me transforming myself into a living blob of nature-gone-bad while gardening.
Meanwhile, I did enjoy discovering that besides the blizzards of unlovable bugs gone rampaging on the heels of a warm winter, there are the lovely sorts as well: I was almost constantly surrounded by clouds of butterflies that were attracted to the plants I was tending and the nice little drinking fountains I was making with my sprinkler for them. It was as though the flowers woke up and took wing around me. The birds around here are certainly loving the feast of fresh insects, so at least I can tolerate the biting brats if I know that they may soon, in their turn, be Cardinal Chow. Which reminds me, I’ve heard tell that the hummingbirds are back in town, so the feeders should go back up today. How quickly things change in Spring!
Both the ornamental and the edible is swiftly springing up, and thankfully, many of the latter sort of plants are very much the former too. Along with their other benefits of beauty and entertainment and insect-control, the birds have evidently gotten involved in the garden design work around here, planting a number of sunflowers in serendipitously amusing and even rather unexpectedly apropos spots. I’ll leave them all in place and see what seem to be propitious locations for next year’s crop of sunflowers. Meanwhile, I’ve got lots of other things beginning to come fully into bloom that need deadheading and trimming and fertilizing and watering.
The roses have–not too surprisingly, given the kindly weather–been great show-offs already this season. The little old-fashioned straggler that I dug up from its hidden spot by the back fence last fall and tucked into a pail is thriving and throwing off a fair number of its small but deeply velvety dark red blooms. The coral colored rose that I moved to a more visible place in the raised bed by the patio has probably already fired up close to a hundred of its bold blossoms, bringing its own dazzling light to the little ‘courtyard’ enclosed by the house’s wings.
That holly tree that I intended to kill, or at least cruelly constrain (someone planted it much too close to the house’s foundation for either’s good) was stripped to its trunk not much more than a year ago but is not only covered with those charmingly soft new leaves that have their pointy edges but no bite yet but is simply a mass of bloom as well, and now that I’ve seen how adored it is by the bees I know I won’t kill the tree but will just keep it as a sort of vertical bonsai, pruning it vigorously but leaving it to stand as a bee haven, a vine post–I loved having my cobalt-blue morning glory glowing from it last summer and have planted that and other colors this year–and a berry farm for birds and winter decor.
The herb-and-vegetable planters are well underway, and there’s not only plenty of borage leaf, despite the marauding munching bugs who try to turn them to lace, for a nice tisane long before they will be tall enough to bloom. The marigolds have opened their brilliant eyes to have a look around, and the carrots and beets are shooting upward (and, I hope, downward). The parsley and other, daintier herbs will have to fight their way up through the jungle a little more slowly, perhaps, but should be strong enough by the time they do that they will outlast the root veg and the annual flowers.
The peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos and red cabbages are all quite happy and healthy looking right now, and as long as the garden pests can’t get ahead of the birds and me, there may be a nice little bit of produce before too long. In the meantime, it’s sweet just to look at the plants and measure their growth by the day, if not by the hour. One of the perpetual delights of gardening, of course, is the unplanned element that invites itself into the flowerbeds and borders. I was elated to find, among the dozens of baby oak and elm tree sprouts volunteering on the property (and many of which I will transplant, when they’re big enough, to other parts of the yard), a seedling which I quickly identified as a mulberry tree. This, too, will have to relocate eventually, but I thank the bird or squirrel that kindly donated it, as it will also become a great wildlife feeder on the back-forty one day. In the right-hand photo, it is balanced on the left by a seedling soapberry that I’ve been nursing along for just such a purpose, and together they frame a wonderful volunteer that apparently forgot it was supposed to be a tender annual plant, a brilliant orange Gerbera daisy from last year.
Along with the Survivor Daisy there are hints of the wildflower seed I threw nearby beginning to assert themselves. The first tiny cosmos has peeped out from the pathway, and there are promising leaves and stems among the sunflowers and cosmos that say we’ll soon enough be seeing nasturtiums, corn (sweet and ornamental), blanketflower and Echinacea and a whole host of other charmers. If you want to know more specifics of what we’re, ahem, expecting, check back to my plant-list post.
I was certainly not confining my attentions to the back yard, and am pleased to say that both the surprises given to me by the garden and the things I’ve done myself and with goodness aforethought out front are also paying off in lovely dividends. The area in front of my beloved’s office window was particularly shabby and is not so easy to suss out, as it’s victimized by bad drainage because of the contours and conditions of our property and also is quite heavily shaded by one of our big beautiful post oaks out there. So if you set these characteristics up in combination with naturally hot and over-dry Texan weather, there are what might charitably be called Conflicts of Interest. I’m experimenting, to say the least. But I’m getting a fair return at the moment and will enjoy it while I can. Among the humorous and pleasant surprises I would count that of having celery in bloom there. Yes, celery. I had a very ancient bottle of culinary celery seed sitting in my kitchen for so long that I was quite sure it had no flavor left at all, but being a thrifty mad scientist, I tossed the contents out in the front flowerbed and behold, a year later I have flowering celery. If it’s biennial like some of its cousins, who knows what next year may bring!
Between the front walkway and the porch, the flowerbed is cut into yet another poorly drained (but sunnier) spot and is too narrow for its own good. But I’m getting a number of things, mostly perennial, to pop up there and even had a happy re-visitation from last year’s annual sweet potato vine (the fluorescent-green leafed sort) that will probably now give me yet another year of excellent fill-in wherever I haven’t yet solved the bed’s Issues. I’ve tucked in a few herbs besides the front door rosemary that’s thriving–far more than expected–and am working to have a broad mix of textures and colors and seasonal change-ups that I hope will continue to mature and fill in the naked spots until any non-flowery weeds will just feel unwelcome to even visit.
Along with the porch-side plantings there is also another shady stretch, this one less plagued by poor drainage but still overshadowed by one of our big flowering pear trees, so that too is getting an experimental blend of trial-and-error plantings to withstand the vagaries of seemingly opposing growth needs. One of the particular pleasures of yesterday was finding a Bonus Plant tucked into the pot like some sort of vegetal conjoined twin with one of the agaves I laid in yesterday, so now I have this vigorous ‘baby’ to choose a good home for as well. These specific agaves are a variety (Agave parryi) I’ve long admired for their good looks and was thrilled simply to locate, let alone in a size I could afford, but doubly so on learning that they are supposed to be relatively hardy plants–and then on top of all that, I got a big, handsome extra among them. Surely the garden gods were smiling on me yesterday. Or at least the garden gnomes.
Aside from things like my having been chewed upon ungraciously by a bunch of skeeters and having very indelicate and unladylike rivers of sweat inundate my poor little eyebulbs, the inside of my glasses lenses, and every single item of clothing upon my personage, an afternoon of gardening like today’s is a very welcome thing. I finally got after some of the weedier segments of the flowerbeds, planted some of my sprouted babies, moved a plant or two, and did some watering, and by golly, the place looks a tad more presentable.
In honor of that, herewith: a little Texiana and a Garden Fairy for your delectation and/or amusement. Tomorrow, perhaps, a batch of garden update photos. Just to prove I did something, don’t’cha know.
The whole idea that a towering sequoia can be sprung from a single, minute seed is preposterous. It’s not that I think this operation is analogous to those amusing party-trick capsules one can buy for kids, where once the pill-like mite is submerged in water, out springs a dinosaur: a sequoia is not masterfully compressed as a whole, living, full-sized tree into its seed to wow us with its razzle-dazzle emergence.
This is a much subtler, more complex, and truly far more astonishing thing, a seed containing all of the raw material and instructions for growing a full-scale, magnificent conifer. It’s more as if a very small package arrived on the front porch, seemingly from IKEA, yet containing every bolt, panel, screw and window, every necessary iota, for making the whole Empire State Building, and when the box was slit open for a peek inside, the building proceeded to assemble itself carefully and perfectly, over a few years, without any intervention from the recipient. Furthermore, if left to its own devices, it will tend to its own growth and maintenance without any aid from humans at all. Repair and beautification and renewal are included in the package with a tree-lifetime guarantee at no extra cost.
This wonder is replicated uncountable times not only in the massive and miraculous evergreen forests but in every growing thing in the earth that emerges at its birth from a seed. And that’s how, despite my impressive impatience and legendary laziness–which in combination would seemingly guarantee my gardening only with the most mature plants I can finagle onto my property and into the soil, I became enamored of gardening from seed. Oh, I still love the instant gratification of transplants and bedding plants and bare-root behemoths and all of that, but to watch this scarcely-believable process of the infinitesimal exploding (in slow motion, mind you) into the impressively complex is, well, intoxicating.
So I have built up a stash of both collected and purchased seeds that I will attempt to nurture into something more substantial over the seasons, and will play the frivolous farmer, the mad scientist of the weed-patch and the proud parent of whatever scrawny or stupendous growing things I can coax out of those jewel cases, their seeds. I will fuss and fume and furrow both the garden and my brow as I try to conjure their beauties out of those weird and fantastical little lock-boxes of seed and I will talk sternly to the reluctant and coo at the flourishing as though I really had anything at all to do with their excellence when in fact I’m just unleashing them to do what comes naturally in the first place. With appropriate respect for their admirable powers, and love for their bloom and fruitfulness, of course. Of course.