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.

Toward Solstice

b winter yardThe snow has melted again, but the yard has clearly shifted into winter landscape. The zebra grass has gone blonde, the birch tree displays its fine bone structure, and random shallow holes speckle the ground where squirrels are able to stash a few last walnuts, chestnuts, or acorns in the still-green lawn.

b winter gardenOut in the fenced garden the raised beds are asleep, tulip bulbs tucked in against spring rabbits. The blueberry nets have abandoned their frames to spend a quiet winter curled up in the garage. Too cold for the cold frame, so we’ve taken the lid inside to protect it – or rather, to protect the hinges from the ripping power of winds.

b hellebore hatThe green that lingers longest is also the one that comes back first. I tried last spring to establish hellebore in the hat of my Green Lady, who sits on the north side of my garage. Nothing happened until November, when the sprout appeared that became this lovely sprig. It will continue green as winter goes on, but by the time it’s looking really weather-beaten in early March, it will shrug, brighten back up, and bloom.

It still seem miraculous to me, that these trees, these bushes, these very flowerbeds, undergo this transition year after year, green to gold to grey to white. Like the diva changing the lightbulb, I stand in one place while the world turns around me. Warmer or colder, wetter or drier, the differences are nothing to the overwhelming continuity, the reliability, the reassurance that this wheel will turn without our leaning on it. Some people get this from religion. I get it from the world.

Meanwhile, inside the south-facing window of my workroom, the Cobra hothouse tomato seeds also know what they’re doing. Here they come.b seedlings

Signs in the Snow

b snow laceThe first full-coverage snowfall lifts the heart in a way the snows of March just cannot do. Everything was green, and now it’s white – isn’t that miraculous? The yard that was looking a tad ratty is now glorious with fairy lace. It’s beautiful, and I expect that of snow. But it does other things that are more surprising.

b many deer tracksFor example, one look at the snow and it’s clear I am not seeing most of what the deer are up to. Look at all the traffic! It’s a deer parade ground out there. The path from house to garden gate has been picked out by the snow, but all the other trails were made by deer. They sort of drag their toes as they walk, making the characteristic little swoop as they go. From closer up you can see their heart-shaped hoof prints stamped into each step.

b more deer tracksWhere were they going? Over here, apparently. Their trails go in and out of a cozy, secluded sleeping spot under thick evergreens.

b tree anglesSnow also does a forensic on the weeping cherry. That’s a most un-treelike right angle, there, and whatever was once at the narrow end of it has broken away. These branches overhang the driveway. Hmmmm. Thanks for letting me know about that, snow.

b new tomato homeMeanwhile on the other side of the windows, the geranium has kindly made way for two much larger pots for a new crop of hothouse tomatoes. These pots are about twice as big as those in my first indoor tomato trial. Tomatoes will root deeply and be fairly drought resistant if you give them a chance. The small pots didn’t. I filled these with new potting soil and planted “Cobra” variety tomato seeds. The tomatoes will be nice and warm there, but still have a view of the snow, just like me. Progress reports will follow.

Meeting Winter Halfway

b early snowDoug put the snowstakes in early this year, a condition we always aspire to but seldom achieve. Viewing the result, however, he decided a few more were needed to keep the plow on track and off the lavender that edges the driveway. Or maybe he just likes the workout, hammering snowstakes into frozen ground. I see him smiling out there while he does it. He really is part polar bear, happy to be moving around in the cold. I was happy to stay inside and look out at him, and wave. Cheerfully, with my mug of hot cocoa in hand. And then we did get some snow, soft and wet and soon gone, which fooled no one.

b stagSigns of winter are all around. The deer that were traveling in small groups, maybe a pair of does with two or three fawns, or a couple of siblings past their spotted fawn stage but not yet into antlers or motherhood, began to consolidate. I’d see seven, then eight, then nine of them browsing for leftover black cherries and crabapples, a six point stag standing guard. The stag will stand behind the herd, and at the sound of danger he stays put while the rest of them run away. People sometimes think him a coward for not taking the lead, but though human hunters may lie in wait for deer, their natural predators give chase. The wolf, the coyote, come at the herd from behind, where they will meet the sharp, defending hooves of the stag.

b amaryllis bulbsThere’s very little to do outside now, but a few garden tasks have moved indoors. I get better repeat performance from my amaryllis if, after I bring them in, I lift them, clean them, and let them rest with a lot of air but not much light. I’ll pot them back up after Christmas, to have flowers of joy and enthusiasm when most needed. In February.

b poinsettiaThe poinsettias enjoyed their summer on the deck and came in full, green, and leafy, but the idea with poinsettias is to get them red for Christmas. For this, they need bright light for a short number of hours every day. The low Michigan sun in winter shines more directly into my south-facing windows than the high-flying summer sun does. Very bright light. I put the poinsettias in windows of rooms I don’t go into much – guest bedroom, formal dining room – so I don’t interfere with the natural hours of available autumn light by flipping switches.

b tomatoesMeanwhile I am extending tomato season with some success. Not only are the hothouse tomatoes continuing to flourish, but the nice, bright window light has been ripening the green ones I brought in from the garden before the frost. To everything there is a season. To flowers and tomatoes, may the season never end.

Further Adventures of Jack Frost

b weeping cherryWe finally had a frost, but having it so late made a few things clear. Autumn colors are definitely the result of a dance between falling light levels, frost, and overall weather. Jack Frost’s paintbrush does not operate all on its own. But the details are tricky.

b burning bushFor instance, the dogwoods turn reliably red early in the season, even if nothing else does, and even if it’s still warm. Also, the dogwoods are an understory tree, growing under the broad arms of the taller trees which, if there were a frost, would protect them from it. So it can’t be frost turning them red. On the other hand, as the tall trees lose leaves, the dogwoods get more light, not less. Hmmm. Well, by then they’ve already started getting red, so maybe there’s no turning back.

b pear treeThe wild black cherry over the deck is reliable for turning early, but the one at the edge of the lawn always turn a couple of weeks later. Despite this difference, neither requires a frost, and they share an opinion on how colorful to be in a given year. So I’m guessing it’s a combination of daylight and position in the yard for when they turn, but things like rain, drought, and summer temperatures for color intensity.

b maple tooThe sugar maples had wisps of color here and there as the hours of daylight fell, but they only burst into their full glory with the frost. Every year they’re different as to when they change, as well as to how bright their colors are. So the maples are taking all factors into account.

b leavesLooking around the yard, I can mostly sort all the other deciduous trees, shrubs, and groundcovers into one of those three categories: the self-motivated, the socially aware, and the introverted but ultimately exuberant. Different manners, but the happy result is to paint the glory of Michigan’s autumn over a bigger canvas than Jack Frost could manage on his own. It takes all kinds.

Autumn Is Late

b cherry fallThe month of October continues, strangely, with no frost predicted. Some of the trees have decided to go for fall, and some are waiting to see what happens. The zinnias are holding their own, and the morning glories, which held off all summer, finally decided to bloom. This amazed me when it happened last time, but now I have a theory: the black cherry tree at the west end of the deck must have been shading them more than I thought. When it loses its leaves, the afternoon sun gets through and the morning glories wake up. That’s my theory, and since I’m not going to test it by gluing the leaves back on or throwing a shade cloth up there, my theory will remain untested, and therefore unfalsified.

b october dogwoodSo, the black cherry votes for fall, the dogwood agrees, the morning glories and zinnias say no.

b front zinnias – Version 2I decided to bring in the plants that were out for the summer in any case, now, before they feed any more critters. I took them into the garage and sprayed them with soapy water, hoping not to bring insect life into the house with them. Now begins my game of Musical Windowsills, trying to fit light levels to plant happiness, and care needs to convenience of location. I will change my mind about this several times before spring comes back to liberate them all.

hothouse tomatoes – Version 2Meanwhile, my hothouse tomatoes have been living it up on a windowsill all summer. Remember the hothouse tomatoes? They looked so modest on the windowsill in June. Well, modest no more. They take up a lot of real estate but the payoff is delicious. Vine ripened. We’ll see how that goes as winter gives us get fewer and fewer hours of sun.

squared tomatoAnd while we’re on the subject of tomatoes, here’s a cautionary tale from the still-producing outdoor tomato beds. Suppose you got pushed into a corner, and spent your whole life growing there. You could come out looking like this square tomato. Some might call you a misfit; others might be intrigued to learn your story. If it comes down to a matter of taste, I can tell you it tasted magnificent. Just like the round tomatoes did.

More Beautiful Days

clueless fawnAs we get further into fall there’s less for the critters to eat and they get bolder. One came right up on my deck the other night, ate an entire tall, twelve-inch potful of flowering impatiens down to nubs, and had a few petunias and geraniums for dessert. At first I blamed the woodchuck, but then noticed several zinnias bitten off, raggedly, at a height the woodchuck could not have reached. Deer. Most likely a fawn. The fawns that were tiny shaky newborns in mid July are now learning to eat on their own, with an underdeveloped sense of danger and an uninformed palate. The petunias and impatiens are tasty, but some of what they eat, like my Jasmine Tobacco, is poisonous. They seem to survive, but it can’t be good for them.

deer grouping upThen a night or two after that, a lot of terrible screaming woke me up about four in the morning. Was it the bunny? I’d never heard this high-pitched wail before. It sounded like it might have been two different animals, and it went on for some time before it stopped, or maybe I just fell back asleep. In the morning I looked all around the yard, the deck, the woods, for signs of a struggle. Nothing. No blood, fur, or feathers; nothing disturbed. I turned to the internet and checked out the recorded screams of cottontail rabbits – no; woodchucks – no; white tailed deer – aha! White tailed deer! And though it sounded painful, according to the hunter who posted the video in question, these were the calls of deer that had been disturbed into running in different directions, calling to each other to get the herd back together. Did the hunter really know that? Was it a rural myth? Since there are urban myths, it stands to reason there are rural ones. The only sound I’ve heard before from deer is the sort of “Huff” a stag makes, generally accompanied by a hoof stamp, to warn the rest of the herd to flee.

Blaze the BunnyWhether it was a deer or not, it wasn’t the demise of my weed-eating helper bunny, because I saw her the next day. My bunny has a little white blaze on her forehead, very distinctive. I was feeling very smug about the Universe having endowed my back yard with a weed-eating helper bunny. Then I went out into the fenced garden to see how the last of the crookneck squash were coming along. They weren’t. Three tender little baby squash, a foot or two of vine, and many big fat juicy leaves had totally vanished. It was neat work – no messy broken bits a la squirrel, no neighboring plants knocked over a la woodchuck. Rabbits are extremely tidy when they are destroying crops and landscaping.

bunny blockerSo I inspected the chicken wire around the base of the fence, and found the place where the wire had rusted out at ground level, and a shallow, bunny-size underpass had been excavated. My bunny must have been doing reconnaissance all summer, just in case. I believe the relevant phrase is, nevertheless she persisted. Her erstwhile entry now boasts a temporary patch of bricks on both sides of the chicken wire, sandwiching it in place, and Blaze the Bunny is back to eating weeds in the lawn.

September Song

b tomatoesSeptember is the easiest, most rewarding time to be a gardener in Michigan. Weeds have slowed way down but the tomatoes are really rolling in. The yellow squash and eggplants are doing the same. Their leaves may look ratty, but my biggest garden chore is tying the plants up and harvesting their bounty every day.

b autumn clematisMany summer flowers have given up, but the Autumn Clematis that previously did nothing but try to swamp my asparagus, is now in full gorgeous bloom with sweet, sweet scent.

b basil in frontThe basil in the front yard shows tinges of its coming shutdown. I’m letting it flower now, since at this point it’s a toss-up whether the basil will go to seed before the frost gets it. The sage in the upper righthand corner of that picture, however, will continue to stand, proudly flavoring the stuffing and festooning the platter of the Thanksgiving turkey. It will still be leafy in the snow. I’ll trim it back in spring when the new leaves start coming out.

b flowersThe zinnias and petunias will bloom until frost, and the geraniums will keep them company until I bring them inside for the winter, but I do have to start watching the weather forecasts for frost warnings.

b yellow leavesA well-known poem of my childhood was the story of Jack Frost, who came with a paintbrush, unexpectedly and unseen in the middle of the night, and everywhere he went he left a trace of red or gold on the leaves of trees.

b red leavesThe poem never said whether his brushstrokes were deliberate, and I always imagined them as accidental. I thought Jack Frost was on his way somewhere else with that paintbrush, with something else in mind, and slopping a little color onto the trees as he went along just happened. It looked that way to me then, and it looks no more deliberate to me now, though I’ve learned, as a gardener, that the color change doesn’t necessarily come with a frost. No frost here yet, but there’s a slash of gold on the weeping cherry in the front yard, a spatter of red on the wild black cherry in the back, and I think of that paintbrush, trailing glory like grace over a world that can certainly use it.