Bulb Story

b bulbs 1Bulbs are very determined.

These were quiet in my closet for months, but eventually something – the passage of time? sensitivity to teeny temperature changes? – told them it was their moment. They began sending up shoots, oriented to gravity but not to light.

b bulbs 2Since they were pretty tumbled around in the bag in the closet, they came out looking arthritic.  I felt sorry for them.

b 3 alsoSo I moved them into the sunlight and gave them water. They straightened right up and became what they were intended to be.

b bulbs 4Such an easy metaphor – deformed and awry from lack of light and nourishment; upright, ready to bloom and be productive, when resources are applied.  No need to belabor the point.  Use it where you will – plants, children, relationships.  Good advice from an indoor garden.

January

b littlest christmas treeHappy New Year! This is the month named for Janus, the Roman god of gates and transitions, who looks backward and forward at the same time. In my front yard this morning under the  wide spreading branches of my big old pine tree, rooted in the past, this new little sprout of a tree faces the future. Janus looks out in both directions, but he occupies the middle ground – a position we could use a lot more of these days. It’s interesting that the Greeks, whose gods the Romans generally paralleled, have no similar god. The Greeks invented Democracy. I hope that’s not a portent.

b second pumpkinThe hipposquirrelamus has made an interesting sculpture while fattening himself on my second pumpkin. He ran away when he saw me, but I wondered where the chipmunks were. In November they were running up and down the yard with their cheeks stuffed out, but I never saw where they took their loot. Unlike the hipposquirrelamus that continues to forage all winter, chipmunks hibernate. They are said to build burrows as much as 12 feet long, with many entrances and separate pantries, sleeping areas, and trash dumps. This sounds way too organized for critters that rush around as chaotically as chipmunks do, but then there are those cheeks. They wouldn’t need capacious carryall cheeks if they didn’t have a plan. Being natural travelers through the underworld, they have co-evolved with various of the foods they gather, for instance spreading spores of fungi. Especially truffles.

b ajugaSo there are the smart and tidy chipmunks, holed up  in their burrow mansions eating truffles, while the deer, possums, and raccoons tromp through the winter scrounging. This explains why the plants that stay green in winter here are the ones critters do not eat. The ajuga looks luscious to me but not to the wildlife, after a week when the temperature fell all the way down and off the thermometer. That’s what zero degrees means, right?

b helleboreAnd here’s the hellebore, not just surviving but planning to bloom before spring comes. Being repellent to mammals is the way to go if you’re a small, low-growing plant that stays green in a Michigan winter.

b poinsettia reduxThe poinsettias I saved from last year spent the summer outside and dropped many leaves when I brought them in, but now have recovered to holiday glory.  After many struggles with mealybugs, to which over-wintered poinsettias are sadly susceptible, I now have an actual houseplant tip for you. For a minor infestation, mix one quarter cup of rubbing alcohol with a cup of water, dip a cotton ball into it, and dab directly onto the little white mealybug clumps. For a major infestation, mix the same proportions of water and rubbing alcohol in a big batch, add a little dishwashing liquid, and spray the plant all over with it. Works better than anything else I’ve tried.

b nite tomatoesI also used this on my indoor tomatoes, the other victim of mealybugs. Direct application worked better for them, because they grow in big heavy flowerpots that can’t be picked up and set in the kitchen sink to be sprayed. Spraying them as they sat among my books, furniture, and Christmas lights wasn’t a great idea. So, dab it was. The new green tomatoes are reaching the full 2-inch “salad size” they were meant to be before ripening, unlike the pre-treatment tiny red tomato you see here, which was hard as a rock.  Definitely worth fixing.

Toward Winter

b fat squirrelWe have a squirrel in our yard so big and chunky,  I often mistake him for the woodchuck. The woodchuck, of course, is tucked deep in her den, where I devoutly hope she will stay until, hmm, maybe next September. No, what we have cavorting through the yard here is the Reigning Squirrel Champion of Winter Prep. Squirrels don’t hibernate, but pickings can be slim in wintertime so they are wise to beef up while they can. For instance, by clearing out all those pesky leftover pumpkins from Thanksgiving. This photo doesn’t do him justice, as he’s a very self-possessed squirrel, who does not approach people in an attitude of supplication nor pose for photographs. When he sees me he flounces off.

b skytreeI was on my way to the mailbox, but the sky was especially beautiful so I loitered. No snow yet, but somehow the trees managed to glitter. I love the part of any season where it changes from one into the next, in this case the architecture of trees emerging as the light fades. Not autumn, but not winter until it snows.

b paper wreath 1I get ready for the sno by putting up my holiday decorations. I always hope for snow for Christmas but that not being in my control, I go for lights, indoor greenery, and lots of decorations. Though I’m usually averse to tearing up books, I had a collection of old encyclopedias and Slavic dictionaries given me specifically for craft uses (by a friend who taught English in Poland). Here’s the wreath I made by pleating encyclopedia pages and wiring them onto a wreath form.

b w lightsZerlina always takes an interest in the string of Christmas lights – bright, like the laser pointer she likes to chase, but not going anywhere. I do wonder what she makes of them. She was a street cat in her youth and though she certainly knew about trees, she was not familiar with Christmas trees. When she encountered her first one, in my living room, she immediately climbed it. Fortunately this was before the decorations went on, so no damage ensued.

b zerlina tissueWith time she discovered that these strangely fast-growing living room trees never had birds in them, and gave up climbing them in favor of hiding underneath as a stake-out for mice. We do sometimes have mice. She watched the tissue paper piling up as I unwrapped the tree ornaments, and jumped right in to help by checking it out for vermin. Those mice are tricky and could be anywhere.

The Virtues of a Raggedy Yard

b zebra grassSo many people complain about northern Novembers being grey, but I always think of Elinor Wylie’s description: “… landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.” November is an invitation to calm, to quiet, to pause before the big winter holidays, take stock, and be thankful.

b red berriesIt used to be standard practice, once all the leaves were down, to rake them away, pull out spent stalks and branches, and cut everything else to the ground. If you left ratty edges in a suburban yard, your neighbors would complain, or at least drop hints. Calling it “winter interest” mostly garnered eyerolls. But there has been a lovely confluence of awareness of the ecological value of not cleaning up, and fewer people having time for it anyway, that is bringing improved habitat to the critters that spend winter in our yards. An untrimmed shrub that holds its berries for months, a brushy low plant that provides shelter against the wind and cold – these are real assets for birds that have been kind enough to stick around. Let the leaves lie where they fall, and first you save yourself the effort of removing them, then when they decompose and enrich the soil you save money on compost.

b agastache seedsHere’s the agastache standing up with its clutch of seedheads, feeding birds but ignored by squirrels.  That’s a win.

b seedhead hydrangeasHere, the standing hollow stems of hydrangeas make cozy hibernation homes for solitary native bees. Don’t cut them down until the bees come out, which for me is when the daffodils bloom.

b foxglove

And here’s a surprise – it’s November 30th and one of my foxgloves, still green in 25 degree overnight temperatures, has put out a last, short stalk of flowers.

I’ll leave you with a poem.

Thanksgiving

b deerOn a November day, the garden store
stacks a display of mulch and birdseed
on its open porch.  Buyers come and go
for chrysanthemums, rakes and barrows,
autumn merchandise, and are surprized
to hear a congregation of sparrows
who’ve found a corner torn in a
bag of millet, and call their friends for more.
It seems when the universe is kind to birds
it is unkind to merchants, unless
they are prepared to take the song as reward.
The singer doesn’t know enough to be thankful.
Remember this when times are hard.

National Emblem

b road walkJust before election day, Doug and I took a walk up the road to the bald eagles’ nest. A neighbor had told us the eagles were gone, but I was sure I’d heard them calling to each other, flying over the house. Since the river wasn’t frozen yet, we hoped if they weren’t at the nest we might get a sight of one fishing.

eagle wider view lookoutA windstorm had come through the previous night, causing strangely random damage. Leaves were barely disturbed in one spot, and most of a tree knocked down in another. The eagles’ tree was still standing tall, with its big knot of nest bulking at the top. We loitered for a few minutes while no eagle appeared, and then here he came – she came? – over our heads from the river behind us, talons carrying a huge clump of brushy sticks. She glided into the nest with it, disappearing from our sight. Repairs.

As a poet it’s true I see things in metaphor a lot, but I ask you – how could anyone not see this as an omen – a good omen? Our national symbol, on virtually the eve of election day, repairing the damage to her home?

eagle outlookThere was certainly a happy spring in my step as we walked the rest of the way up the road, turned, and walked back. When we came again to the eagles’ tree we looked up. There she was, sitting on the usual lookout branch, head turning slowly from side to side as she surveyed the river, the road, the town, the world. The nest was whole again. All would be well.

The Pull of Photographs

b leaflightFall has always been my favorite season, which was frustrating when I lived in California. We had fall from about Christmas to New Year’s (after that, spring). Now that I am in the gorgeous country of blazing maples, golden hickory, and the self-explanatory burning bush, my October cup runneth over.

b red tooSeized with desire not to lose all these beauties, I take their photographs. Over and over again, and then they are mine. Taken; captured; the words used for photographs imply that I’m not alone in this irrational feeling that the image is the thing.

f leavesBut what we possess in a photograph doesn’t come only from what’s physically in it. The colors and shading give the illusion of heft and contour, but a photo is a flat surface. The third dimension comes from us, from what we know about leaves and trees, and fill in –  just physically, not even counting the feelings we have about trees, about autumn, about color, about light, about darkness. Those come into it too.

f cloudsI take a photo of leaves on the ground, and I can feel my feet scuffling through heaps of them on trails and sidewalks.

I take a photo of a tree against a skyful of amazing clouds, and I think of my mother, and what she called a “buttermilk sky.”

b chairAnd this late afternoon sun speaks autumn strongly to me, because I know that three months ago the sun set on the righthand edge of this picture, far north of where it is setting now. It’s not just the color in the trees – summer’s heading south. Your particular associations may be different from mine, but you have them. That’s the part that’s the same.

Every fall I write about the leaves and most winters I cross most of it out. Here are two surviving bits.

b red mapleMaple: vermilion

Signs of the season,
lamps against grey skies,
flame to the blue,
they build into quick haystacks
on the ground.
The deep end of autumn,
leap in feet-first; it closes
over your head.

b gingkoGingko: cadmium yellow

Ancient tree, eons of
synchronized passion
make the leaves fall
all together when they fall,
a chorus line dancing
to the ground, one,
two, three, kick.

Peninsular Road Trip

1 b harbor 4022One place I’d heard of but not yet seen since moving to Michigan, was Sleeping Bear Dunes. People told me how big, tall, steep, and impressive the dunes were, but having seen what passes for mountains around here my expectations were low. Doug and I drove up the hand-shaped Michigan lower peninsula, heading for the pinky/ring finger. Michigan is two peninsulas surrounded by a whole bunch of big lakes and, in an unusual display of common sense, has a name from the Anishinaabe that means – Big Lake. Michigami.

2 b alligator4127Another well-named place was this view of Alligator Point. Compared to other Alligator Points I’ve seen, this one looks much more like an alligator. Since alligators are not native to Michigan, I wonder who named it and what name it had originally.

f dunes steepAnd then we came to the dunes. Having lived on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts I’d seen plenty of charming, modest dunes. Well, forget that! These dunes were huge, steep, amazing, and  nothing like any dunelets I ever saw before. At the top of the Lake Michigan Overlook, on the scenic drive in the national park, we were 450 feet above the lake. It sloped down at a 33 degree angle. A large warning sign advised the public that there was no way back up but to climb, and a helicopter rescue cost $3,000. The Park Service is very good on information like that. Since I’m a writer, not a hiker, I stayed up top and took notes.

4 b bearWorking with words as I do, my next question was: what about the name Sleeping Bear Dunes? This one has a sweet, sad story, also from the Anishinaabe, about a mother bear and her two cubs. They lived on the Wisconsin shore, and due to famine in one version, or fire in another, had to flee for their lives into the lake. They swam and swam, but only the mother bear made it across. She climbed the bluff and sat there, watching for the cubs, but alas they drowned. She still sits there, watching for them. Some say the Manitou islands (see them in the blue haze) are the cubs, still in the water. The small dark knoll atop the dune in this photo was originally larger and more ursamorphic, but has been much eroded by heavy storms over the last two or three hundred years.

6 b cottonwoods4242Sand dunes erode, shift, and move (slowly) about. For some decades now, people have been planting cottonwood trees to help stabilize the dunes. Most trees give up when buried in sand, but a cottonwood will send up a whole new tree from its roots. They also turn a lovely, bright golden yellow in the fall.

7 2 b motel moonIt was a gorgeous day. I believe I took 200 pictures – it wasn’t easy picking just six to show you. We returned to our motel tired and happy, greeted by a nearly full moon rising artistically through the trees.

Here Comes Fall

b deer 2014Though deer are generally a source of torment to me as a gardener, today one pair of them was really funny: a fawn standing halfway under a doe, trying to nurse while she tried to get away. She’d take a few steps and Junior would keep up, staying tucked under; she’d put on a little burst and shake him off, and he’d catch up and glom on again. I don’t know if she was trying to wean him, or just trying to get herself a snack, but it looked like a vaudeville routine. They both seemed very determined.

b deer 3 2021I could definitely relate to mama, but on the other hand realized if she succeeded he’d move on to eating my flowers. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing more clueless about what to eat than a fawn. I’ve seen fawns eating foxgloves and nicotiana, a bad idea not just for my landscaping but because those plants are poisonous. I used to wonder how deer knew to steer clear of poisonous plants, but it seems they don’t. They just eat whatever looks good to them, and the ones attracted to poisonous plants don’t survive. It’s brutal out there.

b deerThe weather’s not brutal yet, but the deer have begun grouping up for winter. This is another deer fact that has confused me. Food sources are so scant in winter, you’d think the deer would spread out to get enough to eat. All summer the deer come through by twos, threes, or fours – a doe or two at a time, with her fawns. Then the leaves start to fall and the nights start to cool, and the deer start to bunch up. For warmth together overnight? For safety from predators under those leafless trees? What predators? Their only predators in this area today are people, and we’re not very good at it. It’s certainly easier for us to spot a herd of deer than a pair of them. Guess they know that, as deer predators go, we’re pretty lame. That’s comforting, isn’t it? To know we’re not a source of terror to all nature.

b green tomsIn other mysteries, my tomatoes are petering out early this year. Who knows why, but it was a weird year for weather – some things did amazingly better, some things surprisingly worse. The tomato plants are looking ragged, but they still have fruit and it’s still ripening. This is when I start watching the weather forecast carefully, for frost warnings. I could give up and bring them all in now, but that’s not very sporting.

b butterfliesAmong the happy campers in my yard are the mountain mint, zinnias, asters, and Russian sage, plants that keep blooming as summer winds down. Trying to stay on nature’s good side, I put in more of these plants that bloom into fall, providing food for bees and butterflies. For some reason I have millions of Cabbage Whites this year – I grow none of the vegetables they prefer, but they’re good with mountain mint – and I also have a lot of Fritillaries.

b butterflyI love Robert Graves’ poem on the Cabbage White’s “honest idiocy of flight,” but Fritillary is just a wonderful word. The name, shared with a similarly checkered flower, comes from the Latin “fritillus.” According to the quick and easy dictionary in my computer, fritillus meant “dice box.” According to my big, heavy, deeper-delving OED, it meant a chess board. Dots, checks, or spots, in both cases. I wanted it to have some connection to the word “frit,” a term from glass blowing. Apparently not. I learned these butterflies were fritillaries from Marcy Breslow, one of the authors of this handy guide, which I highly recommend.

Harvest Proceeds

b tomatoesNo sign of the woodchuck the whole last month. Was it the repellent spray? The tunnel flood? The vinegar? Maybe all of them? There’s no more havoc in the garden, and damage outside it is clearly the work of deer, who leave a ragged edge on anything they chomp. Woodchuck and rabbit  teeth cut cleanly.

b garlic chivesThe harvest, unmolested, continues to roll in, but there’s at least one change I’m making for next year. The garlic chives have been pretty effective at keeping deer from eating the phlox, but have spread so much they seem to have choked out the shastas. And they are currently going to seed. I need to pull some of those. Soon.

b gourd vineThe mini pumpkins and gourds are fun, because after their slow start they leap out of the raised beds and travel in a most amusing fashion. The blueberries are all gone by the time random gourds barricade the nets, so no conflict there.

b marigolds 1One of the things I loved about marigolds as a child was harvesting their seeds. This is a task especially suited to small children’s hands.

b marigolds 2Once the flower has dried on the stem, the whole seedhead breaks off cleanly with a satisfying snap.

b marigolds 3Pull off the bits of dried orangey brown petals, and the fluff that comes with them leaves a nice clump of feathered seeds. I used to just put them in a paper envelope, but now I use an empty spice jar, since I usually have some around. But the envelope worked fine.

b green poinsettiasGardeners in Ann Arbor used to bring their tender plants indoors over the Labor Day weekend and some still do out of habit, but average first frost here is now October 15, with a spread from 10% on September 30 to 10% on October 30. My poinsettia plants, moribund indoors by last May, have flourished once again on my deck this summer; the geraniums and jasmine, too. All of them need to come in before a frost, which means I need to clear out a lot of floorspace indoors, in front of windows for them. I’m working on it.

Bounty

b tomaotesAugust is a very rewarding time in my garden. The tomatoes, yellow squash, cosmos, and zinnias are rolling in, the weeds have slowed down, and the little pumpkins that seemed so reluctant to emerge are finally showing themselves.

b punkins too

Diseases have been dealt with, win or lose, and by the end of the month – now – anything that wants to die can go right ahead. Too late to agonize. I really never understood the “we made it!” joy of harvest festivals until I started growing food.

b cosmosWe had a big, windy storm a few days ago, which knocked my tall flowers over. Sunny days followed, and the cosmos needed only one day’s sunshine to right themselves to a jaunty angle. They nod gracefully in my flower arrangements.

b vase flowers

The cosmos and zinnias are beautiful in the garden, but the reason I grow them is to make my flower arrangements.

b more flowers

 

There’s a Dutch tradition of flower paintings in which the brief lives of blossoms are meant as a reminder of mortality.

b flowersBut to me zinnias and cosmos in September, budding even to the last morning before frost, are signposts of strength and  beauty persisting into age. Fear not, and persevere.