b tulipsBecause the deer and rabbits don’t eat daffodils, I consider daffs part of my landscaping and rarely bring them into the house for bouquets. Tulips are a different story. They need to be protected from critters, so I plant them inside the fenced garden, which clearly means they are a crop. I gather them, and with early and late varieties I have tulip bouquets for many weeks. An interesting thing about tulips is, when the flowers are spent, they – well, they explode, into a colorful chaos. I love that. We went away for a few days, and when we got back yesterday there was just such an explosion awaiting us. The rest of that bouquet blew itself up this morning.

b tulipsA trip to the garden revealed a new tulip crew ready to go, but this may be the last of them. It’s perfect timing, because the raised beds they’ve been frolicking in are soon to host the tomato plants currently beating against the glass in the upstairs window.

b jacob's ladderMy Green Lady, now next to the new garden bench, has acquired a skirt, and though it’s hard to tell here she’s developing sleeves of lamium, which I hope will ultimately reach her hands. But my attempt to give her a crown of hellebore didn’t take. It was coming along nicely, but must have been just far enough under the eave of the house that it was out of the rain. The pot dried out. The Jacob’s ladder alongside her needs no help from me to flourish, but neither do the hellebore in the front yard. They’re in-ground. So I have a choice to make here: give her a hat of something very drought resistant; remember to water her in spring even when it rains; or, what I usually do, plant her hat with summer annuals, because I’m used to watering summer annuals.

b lilacsLast year in May the crabapple trees were flowering in glory and the lilacs pouted. This year it’s the reverse – nothing worth a photo from the crabapples, but the lilacs look wonderful and smell even better. Why? Weather? Law of averages? I’m told there are crabapple varieties that only flower every other year, but mine seem to skip years randomly. It’s happened before, but not regularly. I tend to record these events even more randomly than they happen. Sometimes, in a moment of enthusiasm, I tell myself to keep a detailed garden journal with dates and comments for everything in the yard, to compare year to year and nail these things down. Moments of enthusiasm pass.

b dogwoodThe dogwood, though, bloom reliably: mid-May. There’s a poem by Edna St.Vincent Millay where she describes dogwoods as having “ivory bowls that bear no fruit.” I loved that poem as a kid growing up, but knew from observation that dogwoods do indeed bear fruit – red berries, in the fall. We don’t eat them but they are berries nonetheless, and many critters appreciate them. So she was wrong about the fruit, but “ivory bowls” is perfect, and I always think of it when the dogwood blooms. Ivory bowls will make you see dogwood, while red berries never would. The point of her poem wasn’t botany. The point was that the magically beautiful persists, returns, and is there to be found with or without a detailed journal.

Hello, May

forsythiaThings have brightened up considerably in the last two weeks. The forsythia have thickened up, and though temperatures are still skidding around like Olympic slalom wipeouts, it doesn’t seem to matter as much. The sun is up and working before I am in the morning, and didn’t set last night till about 8:30.  Brightness rules.

b daffsThe early daffodils finally shook themselves out, and the less-early pink ones have joined them. Once again the flower buds of the grape hyacinths were nearly all nipped off before they could get an inch off the ground. This is apparently a rabbit delicacy. Since it’s only the flower bud, the plants come back every year. Alas, so do the rabbits. Although yesterday morning the neighbor’s outdoor cat, Mac, went sauntering across my backyard with a very young bunny in his mouth. Whenever Mac ventures into Zerlina’s sightlines, she throws a hissy fit. Cats, you know, invented hissy fits. But she was sleeping by the front window this time, so he escaped being chastised for poaching.

b robinMac mostly sticks to the back yard. Meanwhile in the front yard, the birdbath sits near Zerlina’s window. She and I both like to watch it. Either I have lots of robins that like to bathe, or I have one robin that really, really likes to bathe. Here he is all puffed up from just having hopped out and taken a good shake. The cardinal, the mourning dove, the goldfinches, house finches, and chickadees also drink and bathe, but I’d say there’s a proportion of at least four or five robin-baths to each non-robin bath.

weeping cherryFollowing the daffodils, the weeping cherry’s blooming now, too. This is the tree with the giant scar down the whole trunk, from a lightning strike before our time here. Every winter it loses another chunk of branch and we think, that’s it; every spring it comes back. It’s a favorite of bees, and the natural pruning process has given it many twisty angles that are popular sites for bird nests.

tomato windowYou can see it again in the tomato photo. The seedlings are doing much better than they did last year, for no reason I can come up with. It’s still going to be two or three weeks before our last frost means they can go outside, so Doug cut some dowels for me and I staked them. They also have a better than average survival rate, so I will be giving some away. Not too many, though. I can never have enough tomatoes.

Spring Drags her Feet

b chionodoxaIt’s been wet, cold, and windy, and my bulbs and flowering trees are a good two weeks behind schedule. The chionodoxa are coming out but the daffodils, even the early varieties, are holding back.

b indoor tomatoI did scrounge up bigger pots for the seedling tomatoes upstairs, giving them all room to stretch their toes indoors while it warms up outside. Downstairs, the Cobra greenhouse tomatoes are just starting to get that little sheen that comes before ripening.

b deer yummiesWhile I was rearranging seedlings in the upstairs window, I looked down on what appeared to be off-season practice for Santa’s sled-pullers. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but they’re on the edge of a swale along the roadside. What they found there was either extra delicious or the only thing growing yet, because they stayed at it until an approaching car made them scatter. At which point they all ran in different directions, including straight at the car, which fortunately did not veer into the swale. Once they were gone I went out to see what the Deer Yummy was, so I could avoid planting any of it. Moss.

b sundialIt was drier and more pleasant outside today. We set up my sundial on the new plinth Doug made for it. You can’t use a watch to set up your sundial, especially not in Ann Arbor, which sits well to the west in its time zone. Clock time jumps an entire hour every 1000 miles or so, but the sun doesn’t hop like that. It’s on a nice, smooth roll (or rather, the turning earth is). Then there’s Daylight Savings time, which means nothing to a sundial. You need to line up the gnomon on a sundial with true north, which is not the same as magnetic north. You can get true north by pointing at the North Star, but not in the afternoon. You can put a plant stake in the ground, watch for its shadow to show the sun directly overhead, and line up your sundial for noon. Neither of these methods work on a day full of dancing clouds. So I hover with my watch, and in a fleeting flash of sunlight  subtract about 40 minutes for the time zone and another hour to get back to Standard Time, and twist the sundial into agreement. Will have to consult with stars and shadows when the weather clears up.

b forsythia and dark skyMeanwhile, I realized that my forsythia was blooming while mostly obscured by the plumes of last summer’s zebra grass. Since native solitary bees hibernate in the tall stalks of the grass, I don’t cut them down until a few things are flowering for the bees. Doug came out with the electric hedge trimmer and gave the zebra grass a buzzcut. I spread the fallen stalks around, unchopped, in case any bees were sleeping late. The forsythia was gorgeous against the moody sky.

Progress Report

b later helleboresMichigan Spring continues making fun of itself. We had a run of 60 degree days interrupted by 30 degree days, but the plants in the yard took all this in stride. The hellebores are very happy.

b tulips emergingDoug and I took advantage of a warm day to inspect the fenced garden. The tulips, safe from deer, are getting ready to provide bouquets for me. We found several broken places in the chickenwire that need replacing, and the clematis trellis was tilted at an alarming angle. I cut the autumn clematis to the ground, leaving three or four strong-looking stems at about 15 inches high, and we righted the trellis. Don’t try this with a spring bloomer, or you’ll be removing flowerbuds. Autumn clematis blooms on the new growth it produces in the summer.

b benchDoug had patched up my garden bench as needed over the years, but for my birthday he built me a new one. It spent the winter in the basement, waiting for its moment to emerge into the sunlight like a big wooden butterfly. We brought it upstairs in three pieces, and he assembled it on the spot. It is shiny and glorious, and now sports a few appropriate objects. Also the spare propane tank for the grill, which has to live somewhere.

b snow flowersThen another round of snow appeared, wet and fragile but snow nonetheless. It looked very like flowers on the hedges outside my window.

b tomato babyOn the inside of the same window, the Cobra greenhouse tomato seedlings are four feet tall and blooming. Since there’s no wind and no bugs – or, no suitable bugs – inside the house, I help the flowers set fruit by tickling them. They like that. One infant tomato has already appeared.

b tomato seedlingsThe outdoor tomatoes are doing well in their new experimental trays. They look droopy here, but it’s because I’d just turned the trays. The plants had developed a severe lean toward the glass in an unexpectedly short time — I have to remember to rotate them more frequently. I’m used to growing them in those big cardboard milk cartons, letting them get pretty big before they go outside. I can see that in these smaller circumstances they’re likely to run out of rootspace before outside time comes. I’ll need to scrounge up some bigger containers, and maybe start them later next year.

Here Comes Spring

b flowers and snowThe snow that’s left now lies mostly in disconnected curves and crescents, where our plow service banked its savings at the ends of the driveway and cleared a space to the mailbox. This plowing is done by a woman who is a landscaper in the summer half of the year, and it shows in the careful edges of her beautiful plowing. Then the county street plow comes along and throws the sandy, icy detritus from the road all over her beautiful work. Then the mailman, who in this case is a mailwoman, leaves a note in the mailbox pointing out that she can’t drive right up to it and that this won’t do. So then Doug goes out with a snow shovel and moves the road snow somewhere inoffensive.

b seedlingsI can see from the upstairs window that he won’t have to do that again this season. I’m tending my seedlings in their new, experimental pots, because during the pandemic we switched to getting milk delivered in glass bottles, so I no longer have all those paper cartons for seed starting. Last year I had a motley bunch of trays, but this year I bought some very fancy, reusable silicone potting sets. I’m going to see how they compare to the empty egg cartons and random leftover bedding pots I had lying around.

b tomatoThe indoor Cobra tomatoes I started in big pots in the window downstairs are two feet tall now, and developing their first flowers. I calculate this means tomatoes by Memorial Day. Maybe next year I’ll start them earlier and have tomatoes for, oh, Mardi Gras or something. I’ll put on my green and purple glass beads and have a BLT with my paczki.

b helleboreSpeaking of Lent, Hellebores are also called Lenten Roses, since they bloom at the appropriate time. Mine are a little late starting this year, but there’s still plenty of Lent left for them to catch up. I went out this afternoon to cut away some of the old leaves, and this as my reward. Hello, little flowers. Little signs of hope. Welcome to the needy world.

Like a Lamb

b tulipsI have many lovely photos of my flowering amaryllis and tulips, blooming on the windowsill in this unaccountably mild early March. I planned to write about them, their colors, how the pink of one brings out the coral tones of another, but I’m having trouble concentrating on their peace and beauty while the news of war, burning through the snow in Ukraine, simmers underneath the Word window on my laptop.

b top tulipsThere was a picture in the news this morning of the entrance to a Ukrainian embassy, piled high with flowers, the universal offer of comfort and condolence. These were mostly blue and yellow, the colors of Ukraine’s flag. I have many yellow daffodils and blue forget-me-nots still deep in their winter sleep in my front yard. They’re hardy, and will rise and bloom no matter what is thrown at them. Snow. Sleet. Freeze-thaw-freeze. No matter what, they work their way toward the surface and bump the leafmold out of the way.

b bigToday in Ann Arbor the snow is in full retreat under a sunny sky and 48 degrees. This is a temperature that would feel cold to me if it rolled through in July, but today I walked outside in my flannel shirt, no jacket. Cold measured by a thermometer is absolute, but cold against the skin exists in relation to other things. We live in a layered world, where beautiful things and terrible things bump up against each other. Sometimes the best you can do against the terrible ones is to try to keep the beautiful ones on top.

February Continues

tracksIt is February. It is cold. Things are frozen.

Some complain about it, but I am taken by the blazing light bouncing off the snow, and make attempt after attempt to capture the glittery sparkle in a photo. It’s so obvious to the human eye, while the camera lens remains oblivious, or even willful in rejecting it.

No glitter. A poem instead.

Friends From California Ask About the Snow

It’s in the front yard and finds me
without my climbing mountains,
the bright clean page of it
written over with the history
of the morning’s drag-foot deer,
passing rabbit, tracking cat,
and the conundrum of squirrels
that seem to travel backward,
deep hind footwells, paired
to tiny forepaw prints
but in front of them,
then a space, a leap,
and a double question mark:
why are they out in the snow
away from their warm nests,
not even searching for stash,
dusted with glitter
in a landscape made for sleeping,
but to be improbably glorious
in a wide open world.

snow joy 1

Tiger Year

b flowercatToday begins the Chinese Year of the Tiger. Reading up on it, I found tigers described as brave, confident, strong, and energetic, while at the same time strong-willed, opinionated, craving attention, preferring to give orders rather than take them, and able to go from fiery to calm in the blink of an eye. This describes my tiger cat Zerina so perfectly, I think it’s likely it was written by someone with a housecat. How many people can have been close enough to a full-size, actual tiger, to have known those things about it? So instead of garden advice, here’s a meditation on cats, as inspired by my own small tiger.

b chainsawCats are known for hunting even when they’re not in need of food. Why would they waste energy doing this? Maybe because for ten thousand years people trying to keep birds and rodents from eating our stored grain harvests reacted to hunter cats with “good kitty, come sit by the nice warm fire.”

b predator 2Even today in the suburbs, someone with mice in the kitchen will think of getting a cat. How do you know you’ve got a good mouser? When Zerlina kills a mouse, she carefully lays it out where I will find it. The cat that’s a good mouser makes sure you know about it. I doubt the Big Tigers care whether people appreciate their hunting skills, which since they include us as prey, we don’t.

b tiger burning brightHere’s an interesting point of contact between East and West felines. In the Chinese Zodiac, I’m told, Tigers symbolize immortality. In the West we say cats have nine lives. Less grand for cats than for tigers, but a similar acknowledgement of what? Of their lithe and slinky ability to move without our noticing, so we think they’re gone and suddenly, there they are? When it happens in the dark, with their glowing eyes, it’s startling enough from a cat. From a tiger it must be terrifying.

b z stakeout 2Cats are the most popular pet in most parts of the world, but dogs are more popular in the U.S. This is interesting because cats, like tigers, are known for their independence, a trait Americans supposedly prize. Dogs are said to be admired for their loyalty – not a cat/tiger trait – but why then are dogs the paradigm in slurs, and cats in accolades? A cat is cool; a dog, especially a female dog or the son of one, is despicable.

b z yawnAnd true to her independent nature, this is Zerlina’s reaction to my opinions about her.

Potting Up

Once I have all the Christmas decorations put away – a landmark I only reached this morning – I start my paperwhite and amaryllis bulbs. I used to mail order bulbs, but Downtown Home and Garden here in Ann Arbor has the best amaryllis bulbs ever: big, healthy, glorious, blooming beautifully year after year, and even sprouting bulblets that eventually make additional flowers. I get one new amaryllis every year just to increase my collection, along with a bagful of Ziva paperwhite narcissus. I tend to force my paperwhites in small containers without enough dirt to feed them up for the future, so they have to be replaced. I buy the bulbs in November, since the selection’s best before Christmas.b prep

So now I gather all the bulbs I lifted a few months ago along, find the new ones, round up some containers and a bag of dirt, and set up an indoor potting bench on my craft table. I dig out my much-used plastic drop cloth for the tabletop, and random salvaged plastic to line the containers. If you’re using regular flowerpots all you’ll need is a saucer to go underneath. But if you want to use baskets, crates, or interesting objects like that, you’ll need to line them. I keep a little stash of whatever sturdy plastic bags come my way, and this is where they end up. The usual plastic grocery bags are way too flimsy, but see the bag the potting soil is in, right there in the background? That’s a great one. Old liners from shower curtains are great, too. Flannel shirts and leggings mail ordered from my favorite purveyors also come in tough plastic. Liners made of sturdy plastic are usually good for two or three years in one container before they tear and need to be replaced. I have a couple of baskets that came with professional flower arrangements in them, and the linings in these have lasted many years. If all else fails, buy a plastic dropcloth at your hardware store and cut it up. It may come in a wrapper you can also use.

b more prepDrape your plastic into your container, folding the corners sort of like you’d fold the corners of a bedsheet, and pleating and tucking around curves. Put in a couple of inches of potting soil, nestle your bulb or bulbs into that, and add soil to about halfway up the bulb. This will anchor the plastic so that you can now trim it off at the rim of the container – or lower, as you choose.

b settled inJust be sure to leave enough liner standing above the soil so when you water the bulbs the water doesn’t slosh into the space between container and liner. Which would be really annoying after you’ve messed with all this plastic. Halfway up the bulb is all the soil you need. Water your containers carefully, remembering there’s no drainage. On the other hand, if you’re doing this indoors in someplace like Michigan in winter, the air in the house is dry enough to suck up a lot of moisture, so watch that they don’t dry out.

Here’s a photo of all the narcissus and about half the amaryllis I potted up. As you can see, the narcissus were anxious to get underway. The narrow wooden b final pottingcontainer at the top is a favorite. It was given to me, planted with bulbs, by my dear friend Barbara more than thirty years ago. It’s been repaired, relined, has traveled across country, and has spent its summers on the shelves of various garages. But every January I bring it out and settle it with paperwhite narcissus bulbs, and I think of Barbara. When they bloom, all in a row like that, they’re a line of poetry.

A Musical Interlude

music wreathI am honored to say that Maria Newman has set one of my poems, “The Theory of Art,” originally published in American Scholar, as the fifth movement of her new work, “Six Canzonettas.”  The premier performance was on December 28th. The link is here .

I’m just back from spending the holidays with family, so haven’t had time to write a New Year’s post.  Please enjoy this concert instead.