Snow and Tulips

b squirrelstepsThis morning I opened the front door to this. That was one busy squirrel, and I have no idea what he was after. No nuts, no berries, no breadcrumbs or birdseed. Was it warm, being near the house? But it doesn’t look like he rested, or even stopped. Was that two busy squirrels, chasing each other? I’d opened the door in order to sweep the snow off the steps, but this was too amusing to mess with and I didn’t plan to go out right then, so I left it.

Next time I opened the door, fresh snow had covered the tracks. A great, big coming alongsnowstorm moved in this afternoon, predicted to pile up deep and opulent by morning, delicate enough to make humble objects ethereal, powerful enough to stop traffic. What a lovely background for my array of potted bulbs on the windowsill.

b coming along moreThe first round of tulips has already bloomed and faded, the second pot is going strong, and a little further down the shelf the Apricot Beauties prepare for their star turn. The paperwhites stick their small green snouts up, testing the air, and the amaryllis stick their necks out, some a little more, some a little less.

Glancing at one of the new bloomers, I thought there was a bug on it. Close examination revealed that the odd little extra wing was part of the petal. Imagine if you were a too tulipDutch tulip breeder edging into the tulipmania of 1636. Might you cross this with a fringed tulip, or a ruffly one, for an even more elaborate effect? Would you make a fortune (quick, before the market collapsed) with a new variety? This made me realize I don’t know anyone who ever raised a tulip from seed. This, naturally, led me to the googly discovery that growing tulips from seed is “laborious and won’t yield a flower for at least seven years” (Thank you Jann Seal on SFGate). Also, tulips bear their seeds in pods. Why have I never noticed a tulip pod? Probably because I cut the stems back once the flower is clearly falling apart. So, here’s a new project. I will let at least some of those spent blooms stand, and maybe next month I can show you a tulip seed pod. And if the snowstorm lives up to its billing, maybe I’ll have a nice snowman for you, too.

Written in Snow

snowyMichigan snow continues to amaze me. It’s fluffy. You can sweep it off the doorstep. Where I grew up on Long Island, snow had to be removed with an ice axe. I exaggerate, but not by much. I take my broom to the snow here and whoosh it lightly, like fairy dust, off the steps, onto the flowerbeds on either side. Here you go, lamium; here’s some for you, ceratostigma. More blanket. Sleep well.

It’s also a wonderful traffic map. I sleep past the morning scavenging of thesnow tracks deer, but they leave a record for me: the allure of standing seedheads in the herb garden; the shelter they found under pine trees. The woodchuck, heavy and low to the ground, hasn’t waited for her official day but has waddled a wake into the snow, emerging from under the deck and steering for the woods, or vice versa. I can’t read her signs well enough, yet, to tell the direction.

snow tracksAnd what kind of critter do you think made this deep, purposeful, extremely straight-lined track from the road to my front door? Too early for my garden orders to be delivered. Must have been something for Doug.

The tulip bulbs that arrived last fall have spent a few months in pots in the cold garage, and are ready for warmth and sunlight. I bring them in a few at a time, so they’ll bloom in waves. The paperwhites that were resting in their bag in my closet have been potted up now, too. The amaryllis that were lifted to a dry winter in an indoor basket after spending their summer on the shady part of the deck, are back in the dirt now, stretching. I will give progress reports. Here’s the first one.




snowy agastacheIt’s a word often used at the head of a year. As with many interesting words, it has meanings that overlap and inform each other.

We use it for firmness of purpose, as in New Year’swinter agastache resolutions. We use it for fineness of detail in an image, as in the resolving power of a telescope, a microscope, a camera. We use it for the passing of discord into harmony in music. We use it for turning disputes and contention into peace. The word contains all this. Can we use our firmness of purpose to look not at the surface of our situation, but deep into its substance to see what it’s made of? Will what it’s made of help us turn its discord and contention into harmony and peace? That’s hard to see, and hard to do. It’s much easier to see the meaningless structures that stand in the way, obscuring the heart of the thing. It took thousands of years of the sun appearing to rise and set – as we still say it does – before we recognized that wasn’t the truth at all. We say that we hold to our beliefs, when often it’s the beliefs that have a grip on us.

snow redo winter agastache2020 was a year very much in need of resolution, in all the facets of that word. We didn’t get there. Let’s try again for 2021.

New Year’s Morn


winter garden ladyIn 2020, all three classical music stations I listen to started playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving – usually anathema – and they all gave the same apology for it: wasn’t it a year well worth hurrying on its way out? True, but it was a whole year of our lives. Wasn’t it good for something?

I’ve come across many considerations of this question, often with interesting results. The New York Times points out that we all “stand this week as the living footnotes of tomorrow’s textbooks.” I like that. Some found that “there’s some pieces of normalcy that I don’t really want back.”

In the Washington Post George Will, or anyway his headline writer, said “2020 was a booster shot against human hubris.” He hoped for a better “appreciation of the fragility of life and social arrangements.”

The LA Times said “the success of measures to make voting easier and more convenient,” might even be expanded in the future. It also made us realize that “overcrowded airports, long lines and baggage fees” were not the worst things for travelers to worry about.

bitsSeveral writers have noted that this plague was a demonstration of how, all across the planet, we are irrevocably interdependent. I think this was what motivated the outrage of those who protested being required to wear masks. They said it violated their liberty, but what it really violated was their wish that they, their communities, maybe all the U.S., were and could remain separate from that whole rest of the world, whose influence they saw as something pernicious that could, should, and would be kept at bay. An old, deep strain of American thought, tapped by recent politicians but not invented by them.

bits assembledIf adversity builds character, what a lot of character we all must have now. Let’s hope we can use it to muster the strength to give up ideas that have outlived their relevance. For gardeners, the return of seed catalogs reaffirms that a new season is approaching, filled with possibility. Old favorites and new varieties, the tried-and-true and the experimental, it’s all there to choose from. I greet my seed catalogs with a smile, looking forward. Happy New Year!


Giving Garden Advice

For Christmas this year, my daughter-in-law asked for garden advice. In the past I’ve given her advice as she asked for it – for instance, what’s this thing eating my flowers, or when can I prune this shrub? Charmingly, she wanted these written down, to be gathered in one place, where she could find them when they were needed.

winter interestI was happy to oblige. As I wrote up some notes for her, I thought also about the nature of advice. It’s a lot like literary criticism. You have to distinguish between your personal taste and eternal truth. Maybe that’s overstating it, but haven’t we all put in some “easy care” plants that were, in fact, total divas? Some supposedly prolific tomato plants that turned strangely reticent in our care? Groundcovers apparently determined to become planetcovers? How much time and maintenance do you enjoy, or tolerate? I say if there’s a plant that gives you trouble, rip it out and never let it cross your garden path again. A weed is anything growing where you don’t want it. I like to recommend leaving old stalks and seedheads standing over the winter, both to provide shelter for wildlife and because I love how they look in the snow. Some gardeners – and some neighbors – think this looks like a big mess.

One of my opinions is that people are naturally predisposed to be good gardeners. We can tell good soil from bad just by the smell of it. This is true even for people who grew up in cities and hate getting their hands dirty: apparently, it’s in our DNA to be able to detect good farmland. Then we also have our famous ability to observe three random facts and draw conclusions, which may lead to bizarre conspiracy theories, but has also led to crop rotation (it’s in the Bible), companion planting (like the Three Sisters of Native Americans), and plant breeding (in evidence for at least 10,000 years). Modern science has increased our knowledge and our options, but basic agriculture is in our bones. Or noses.

winter zerlina viewSo advice based on another’s experience can be a shortcut, but the best way to find what works for you, is to try things. Keep trying them. If a plant fails in one place, move it somewhere else. Pay attention to how the garden responds, and draw new conclusions from it.

I see now that this advice also applies to writing poetry. Literary, as well as gardening, advice.

Pandemic Pantoum

Hello? Hello? Turn on your microphone,
I see your mouth move. I don’t hear your voice.
You sit, untouchable, I sit alone,
in this contagion there’s no other choice.

I see your mouth move; I don’t hear your voice
caught in the tangled internet, somewhere
in this contagion, there’s no other choice,
it travels through the not quite empty air

caught in the tangled internet somewhere,
the gesture separated from the word.
It travels through the not quite empty air
hoping to reassemble and be heard,

the gesture, separated from the word,
struggling to tell me what you really mean,
hoping to reassemble and be heard.
I do not understand what I have seen.

Struggling to tell me what you really mean,
you sit untouchable. I sit alone.
I do not understand what I have seen.
Hello? Hello? Turn on your microphone.

winter chairs

Toward Thanksgiving

deer chompingOne of the late sources of food for the critters in my yard is the ornamental pear tree. It makes tiny, hard pears about the size of the end of my thumb, inedible for people but irresistible to deer and squirrels. First they eat the ones that fall to the ground, then they indulge in a little topiary.

squirrel peartreeThe tall stalks you can see standing under the tree are the stems of my Siberian Iris. There was a time when I’d have cut them all down, tidying up, but I have seen the error of my ways. I learned that the hollow stems become shelters in which Michigan’s solitary bees can hibernate. This was news to me because I used to live in Southern California, where bees have no need to hibernate. How lovely to discover that I could ditch a chore and be ecologically correct at the same time.

in cloverWe now have serious, white, twinkling frosts most nights, but the clover persists in several raised beds in the garden. There is one corner in particular that has continually generated good luck tokens since October: not only four-leafed clovers, but five-leafed and six-leafed ones! I have been up to my eyebrows in wishes. A friend says that five-leafed clovers must be given away for the wish to come true, but that’s not in my folktale culture. I was raised to believe that giving away good luck like that was a sign of ingratitude. I am cherishing these clovers, exuberant in their late lives, extravagant of leaf in defiance of the lessening daylight. Inspiring. Just to look at them is good luck – though when I wish on them I do close my eyes.

lucky clover

End of the Season

leafy groundNow the leaves are off about half the trees, the lawn a litter of red and gold slowly going brown. Charlie came and mowed, not to cut the grass, but to chop the leaves into mulchy bits for the wind to scatter evenly over the tired yard. I filled brown yardwaste bags with the remains of plants that showed signs of fungus or other disease, and set them out for collection. Then there are all the plants that would be considered healthy except they’re dead. From frost. Tangled pumpkin vines get piled up onto the raised beds from which they escaped. Anything tall and hollow that looks like it could harbor hibernating bees gets left standing. Two of the remaining empty beds get cleared out for tulips.

birdbath deerI put the tulips in the fenced garden to keep the deer from eating them, so I can cut them for bouquets come spring. Narcissus are toxic to deer, so those can go boldly into the front yard, the herb garden, the peony patch – anywhere. Even the most clueless fawn leaves them alone. It’s sort of a wonderful association, isn’t it – narcissus and toxicity. I’m sure there’s an evolutionary explanation for this difference between tulips and narcissus, but how telling that the poisonous flower shares its name with the Narcissus of mythology who fell in love with his own image. Toxic self absorption: the narcissist has a Greek root in common with “narcotic.” Luckily for the deer they have figured this out.

squirrel nutkinTulips however, are edible. A Dutch friend tells me that during wartime when they had nothing else to eat, the Dutch sauteed and ate their tulip bulbs, which were delicious (don’t try this now – today the bulbs are treated with fungicides). So I hoe up a trench in the raised garden bed, and plant the tulip bulbs. I’ve said it before, but it’s still true: the end of one season is the start of another.

Incandescent October

oct blog red treeAutumn is my favorite time of year. This is true even though orange is my least favorite color. I make an exception for it in October: trees, pumpkins, marigolds, be as orange as you want and more glory to you. The colors are especially gorgeous this year, 2020 making up to us a little for its bad behavior. We need all the beauty we can get, and I’m very grateful to have it.

oct blog pathI looked out across my yard this morning to an almost comically busy array of birds and beasts. Squirrels toted chestnuts the size of their heads, deer nosed the ground for fallen crabapples, robins flocked to the red dogwood berries, and the woodchuck wallowed next to the rabbit in the clover. I didn’t get a picture, but you would have thought it was photo-shopped.

oct blog yellow tree chairI felt like a slacker in all this activity – my garden’s pretty much done. There was no frost the night I wrote about last time, but tonight I expect there will be. My task of the day was to gather all the rest of the flowers, if you can call that a task. A gift. An honor. A revelry. An antidote to the news, to the pandemic, to politics. After I brought them in I took another walk under the bright trees: redbuds, sugar maples,  beautiful and enduring native Americans. As are the cosmos, zinnias, and marigolds. It helps to have great heaps of beauty when ugly things are happening. Drown them out, trees and flowers, drown out the ugly noise.

flowers glass vasefrost flower mix

Harvest Before Frost

There was a prediction of frost a couple of weeks ago with warm nights expected to follow, so Doug helped me cover the tomato plants and some of last flowersthe flower beds. An early frost is heartbreaking, because it’s generally followed by weeks of good growing weather – but there are all your plants, dead. So we draped the beautifully named Floating Row Cover over the tops of the tomato stakes, the heads of the zinnias, and the bodies of the eggplants, and went inside. In the morning there was frost on Doug’s car out in the driveway, but none elsewhere. I undraped all the ghostly fabric trappings, folded them up, and brought them in, leaving the tomatoes to ripen in renewed sunlight.

But frost is predicted again, and this time it’s expected over several nights.last fruits Time to bring in the last of the harvest. I saw the globes of green tomatoes, the towers of zinnias, the  blowsy sprays of cosmos, but good heavens, where were all these little pumpkins hiding? I’d been feeling very cross about my crop of Jack Be Littles and Baby Boos producing nothing but huge leaves. Aha! Under the huge leaves, the little pumpkins were laughing at me. Then again, from the top of the compost pile some very large volunteer pumpkins were also laughing at me. These winter squash are quite the tricksters.

compostumpkinI won’t know till morning whether frost got the garden. Frost is another trickster. It brushes past here, settles over there, pools in a place you never noticed and maybe don’t believe is at the bottom of a slope. It may powder the lawn and draw crystals in the birdbath, but when the morning sun hits, they’re gone. You see the damage that was done among the ravaged, tender plants, but the perp is nowhere to be found. There’s nothing to do but gather up the evidence and cart it out to the compost. Partly I’ll be sad. Partly I’ll be wondering what that compost pile will surprise me with next year.