Building a Tomato House

dogwoodMy fenced garden was here before I was. It works beautifully for keeping the deer and rabbits out of my zinnias and tomatoes, but it’s clear the trees nearby have grown – a lot – since the garden fence went up. I expect the garden got more hours of sunlight then than it does now. I love the trees and have no desire to cut them back or cut them down, but their shade is impinging on my tomatoes.

new bed 1This is where Doug’s woodworking skills come in. He is constructing a new raised bed for me, out from under the trees, in a spot I picked last summer for its shadelessness. Because it’s out there unprotected, it will need chicken wire all the way up the sides, or at least to above deer-munching height. I’m calling it the Tomato House.

new bed 2Here’s progress so far – the frame laid out, and the posts rising. The door will be on the north side, to avoid losing any southern exposure. Though in Michigan in summer, the sun is wa-a-a-a-a-y high up, north of overhead. I found this confusing for a while, but I’ve gotten used to it. In this photo the tree shadow brushes the edge of the incipient Tomato House, but don’t worry – it’s barely May now. In a couple of weeks the sun will not be doing that any more.

tomato babiesMeanwhile in the upstairs window, the seedlings are trying to bust out. They have to wait. People who’ve lived here for decades say not to plant till Memorial Day, but the latest planting guides say mid-May. I’ll probably split the difference.

Spring in Full Sway

daff view with brdbathI was sitting in my chair by the window admiring the view, when a bright red blur streaked past, squawking, streaked past in the other direction squawking more, perched on a bare branch to squawk again, and flew off in what I perceived as a huff. The cardinal is impatient with me for slacking off when I should have been getting the birdbath out of the garage. He was right. No more ice, no more danger to garden ceramics, so birdbath time was here. I rolled it out, set it up, dumped in a bucket of water, leveled it, and while I was out there took a few photos. The sweep of April is glorious, from the daffodils at the birdbath’s foot, to the pear tree just starting to fill out, and down by the road a crabapple tree only barely beginning. A grand succession.

weeping cherryLook how happy the weeping cherry is this year.  I’ve also been following the little blue chionodoxa since that last post, and it does indeed subside in time for the first lawn mow.

seedlings in windowSome of the same view shows up from the upstairs window where the seedlings are sprouting. I had seeds for Supersteak tomatoes left from last year and, thinking few would germinate, I put several in each pot. They all sprouted. I thinned them by snipping off the extra ones, since they were too close to risk pulling. I had some Millionaire Eggplant seeds from three years ago, and planted those. The germination rate was less, but not bad considering their elderly condition (for seeds).

tomato tulipsMeanwhile out in the garden, where it’s still far too cold for the tropical likes of tomato plants, my tulips are coming up in the erstwhile tomato beds. They’re behind the fence to keep the deer from eating them; as they start to bloom, I cut them and bring them indoors for bouquets. Next time I’ll have pictures of the redbuds and dogwoods, which are trembling on the brink of gorgeousness.

tulips indoorsFull-on Michigan spring is not subtle – it hits you over the head with sheer, steep, moonrocketing glory. A little snow is falling this morning, mixed with rain, but it melts before it even hits the ground. The water in the birdbath trembles a little. The cardinal has noticed. Too quick for my camera, but I’m sure he’ll be back.


What Have We Here

seedstartsA year ago at the start of the pandemic, which was also the start of the lockdown, we arranged to have our milk delivered. It came in glass bottles. This was delightful, but it meant no more empty milk cartons to start my seeds. So I ordered some peat pots,  gathered leftover paper cups from picnics past, scrounged up a handful of unused peat pellets, and proceeded. Here they are at the sunny upstairs window, only a few days in and already a few sprouts. The lobelia seeds were so tiny and so determined to stay in the seed envelope, I couldn’t tell if I got any of them planted, or if they blew away with the house dust. But little green bits are coming up pretty thick in those blobby pellets at the back there, so either I managed to plant the lobelia, or something colonized the pellets as they sat all year in the garage. We will find out.

daffsThe sprouts in the blue cups, though, are basil. I recognize them. No surprise there. Basil’s very nice because when you thin out the seedlings, you can use the discards. They’re recognizably basil, in scent, in taste. Throwing them into the spaghetti sauce is way more fun than tossing every second tomato seedling in the compost pile, after going to all that trouble to start them.

chionodoxaMeanwhile on the other side of the window, the narcissus are far enough along that neighbors out walking their dogs stop to admire them. Last fall I put a lot of chionodoxa in among them – the small blue things. They were easy to interplant because they’re so small, I barely had to lift a little soil on the point of my shovel to slip them in. I’m hoping they will naturalize, that is, spread and thicken up. The lawn’s started to go green but is not growing yet. I’m keeping an eye on the relative progress of chionodoxa and grass. If the chionodoxa die back before the grass needs mowing, I’ll put a whole bunch of them into the lawn next fall. A blue lawn – even just a swath of blue lawn – will really give the dog walkers something to stop and look at.


The Elusive Tulip Pod

b tulip podsWell, the tulip pods are fattening up nicely. As instructed, I am waiting until they turn brown to take the seeds out. This isn’t the most practical experiment, considering the seven years they say it could take for a tulip seed to produce a flowering plant, but it just sounds so totally improbable I have to give it a try.

b budsThe weather got warm and the weather got cold again, but the snow’s all melted, even from the deck on the shadowy north side of the house. Buds are showing up on the tips of branches against a bright, bright sky, and the buzzards are back, our official harbinger of spring. I always wonder if there’s less road kill in winter, or why they leave. Do their featherless heads get too cold in a Michigan? Does the roadkill freeze? Buzzards would seem to be better equipped for winter than the deer are, but the deer hang around. The bald eagles are back, too, nesting in their usual spot up the street.

b helleboresDown on the ground, the hellebores continue to increase. Don’t they look pretty, blooming among last year’s dead leaves that no one has gone out there and hacked off? My excuse is, it’s hard to do that without stepping on the noses of the daffodils just coming up. Like Archimedes, I need a place to stand.

b early flowersI didn’t make that any easier for myself when I decided to add more kinds of bulbs to the mix. Last fall I found some crocus said to lack appeal to rabbits, and read that snowdrops have the same alkaloids narcissus do, which have successfully repelled both deer and rabbits in my yard. The sparse look is because I planted very few, since they’re my test group. I’ll get more if these survive. So far so good.

b indoorsAnd now it’s Daylight Savings Time, though up here in Michigan there’s not much daylight to save this time of year. We pay for the late sunset by getting up in the dark. Why does no one ever mention that? According to the very authoritative Sunday NY Times acrostic, Ben Franklin suggested Daylight Savings Time as a joke. Sounds about right to me. I’d put a photo of dawn in here for you, but when I have the misfortune to be up so early there’s no way I can push the right button on my phone. So here’s a nice artistic photo of my latest amaryllis instead.

From the Land of the Mitten

snow womanWhere my driveway meets the street, a spectacular amount of snow piles up from  multiple directions of plowing. I took advantage of the heap to build a Snow Woman. She was much appreciated by the determined Michiganders who take their walks down my street in any kind of weather. How could winter be a problem in a state shaped like a mitten?

sugar on snowWhen it warmed up a few days ago, I realized I’d better move fast if I wanted to make any snow ice cream. The snow has to be deep enough that you can brush off the top layer and get a good bowlful without touching underlying dirt. My deck is on the north side of the house, so snow on the table there perseveres in glory, even after grass is peeking through on the south-facing lawn. I spooned up three scoops of snow, took it inside, and added a nice pour of Michigan maple syrup. In New England the syrup would be boiled down so when it hit the snow, it would solidify into candy. But straight from the bottle, syrup on snow yields ice cream, or at least a maple sno-cone. That’s what I like.

hellebore budsAnd I was not a moment too soon doing it, because the snow continues to recede, and now the hellebores, living up to their other name – Lenten Rose – are nosing up to bridge the winter-spring gap. Seeds I ordered keep arriving in the mail. My amaryllis, potted up and beginning to bloom, lean into the window with its view of melting snow.

It’s sad to lose the sparkling snow, but after seeing flowers replace it, year after year, I have a great deal of trust that the flowers will come through again.amaryllis

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.