Solvable Problems

It’s so lovely to have a garden to work in when the world gets crazy. With no one but Doug anywhere nearby I can be outside without a mask for hours and hours, making a difference to the plants in my yard if nowhere else. The garden has problems you can solve.

One of the problems was my autumn clematis. It took me years to establish it, trying to keep its roots cool but its head in the sun, which I finally achieved by planting oregano all around its base. The oregano thickened up nicely, spreading into a nice mat without taking over unauthorized territory. The clematis responded with vigor. And more vigor. Until, even though I cut it back in May, it climbed the five feet of its bamboo and cedar stakes with insouciance and by last week was looking for trellissomewhere else to go. It found the innocently growing ferns of the asparagus patch, and swamped them.

This wouldn’t do. Clearly, I needed a taller trellis over the clematis so it would leave the asparagus alone. Doug was consulted, went into his workshop, and came back with an eight-foot tower. I said, won’t we have to wait till I cut it back again? No, he said, this will go on right over the whole thing. And it did.

You can see the fine lines of the once-captive asparagus ferns in front of the clematis.

No telling how long it will take the clematis to reach the top this time, but that is a problem for another day.

Bird Stress

I was weeding a flowerbed when the birds in my wild black cherry tree set up a racket of full-throated panic. It sounded like one bird was raiding another bird’s nest. How sad, I thought, and looked up into the tree.

It was very tall but, as wild black cherry trees in Michigan often are, ratty. cherriesIt had thin spots, jagged edges way up high, rambly bare twigs, but still managed to produce a bumper crop of fruit suitable only for chipmunks, a thin scrim of flesh over a fat seed.

I never suspected that tree to harbor as many birds as now came flying out of it, going in crazy circles, chirping wildly: wren, tufted titmouse, robin, cardinal, finch, jay, and others too obscured by leaf, noise, and movement to identify. Clearly some predator was afoot, or a-wing.

Zerlina, attracted by the hubbub, came to the screen door and I saw her eyes go big and round. What she saw before I did was a very large bird, flying out of the tree with something dangling from its talons, the tail of a something small and four-footed trailing behind it as it crossed my lawn. Not a mouse, Zerlina; a chipmunk.

My, I thought, that bird sure looks like an owl. It sure looks like the Great Horned Owl that spent the early spring hooting at our bedroom window at five a.m. every morning. But it couldn’t be an owl. It was 10:30 in the morning. It must be a hawk.

It flew to the broad, sturdy, horizontal branch of another tree. It was busy now, holding its victim under one foot, beaking at it, sitting up now and then to look one way and then another. While it was occupied I went inside for my binoculars. The sound of the screen door caused the Large Bird to look directly at me as I raised the binoculars. Big round yellow eyes. Ear tufts. All the right markings. It was the Great Horned Owl.

Maybe by owl time this was a midnight snack.bleeding heart

Were all those birds in that tree to start with? I’d never seen such a conglomeration before. Had they joined together to make enough fuss to drive the owl away? A battle plan from a random set of birds seemed like a stretch. Were they like bystanders at a flaming car wreck, drawn to see the disaster for themselves? Being human, all I can think of are human options. What was in the hearts of those birds?



Dark Days

Dark days in the towns and cities, but the light in the skies of Michigan doesn’t go out until after nine at night this time of year. I have brought the seedlings downstairs, the ones I started from seed weeks ago, Black Pearl, Supersteak, Indigo tomatoes. After dinner I go back into the garden and plant them, deep, the way tomatoes like to be planted. Stand them up, lay them down, wherever they meet with earth they root into it, anchor themselves, draw sustenance, grow tall, make flowers, and set fruit.



They are out there now, waving their little green hands in the evening wind, on their way to keeping faith with the promises of the seed companies and the hopes of the gardener.

These are days when I so need the garden. It is good to have a place where faith and promises are kept and hope sustained.

In Earnest

The overnight frost alerts have ended, and real gardening begins. Though I have liberated the emerging ferns and mayapples from the suffocating grip of garlic mustard, filling yard waste bag after bag with it because no one wants garlic mustard in their compost, I am going to have to leave the rest of it to go to dreaded seed. It is time to move on to the fenced garden, and ready it for the tomato plants currently waving from the upstairs window.

asparagusThe fenced garden has already been producing asparagus. This is another of many fine things I enjoy as the fruit of someone else’s labor: I moved into the house one summer, and the next spring all this asparagus appeared with no effort on my part. I had never seen asparagus in its neonatal condition, and it made me laugh. It looks for all the world like someone snuck out into the garden when nobody was looking, and stood a lot of asparagus spears up in the dirt as a joke.

dogwoodAnd then there’s the dogwood tree: another example of something wonderful that just showed up that first spring. Wanting to add my contribution to all this largesse, it pleases me no end to think of the future householders looking out the window to what was once my yard on a fine spring day – and may it be many years from now – to be greeted by the daffodils I planted and the redbud trees I have placed as understory in the woods, and see that someone loved this place, and worked to make it more beautiful.



Dogwood in May

I have done nothing to deserve this tree.
When it was planted I was far away,
and those who lived here never thought of me
as each year’s petals whitened into May,
and summer came to silently retrieve
the green it left behind when it moved on.
The planters grew into their time to leave
and gathered their existence, and were gone.
I stand here now with barrow, shovel, rake,
in contemplation of the liberty
I know that I habitually take,
receiving what was never given me,
but with a gardener’s hope, I sow the seed
to make my present what the future needs.



Pandemic Gardening

Landscapers and garden stores are back in business, essential or not, but I find I’m resistant to going into them. Who knows how many people fingered that pot of geraniums before I got to it? Wouldn’t a geranium die if you took it home and sprayed it all over with bleach? I decided to confine myself to sowing some chill-loving seeds, something I always mean to do and leave too long. Of course, this means I have some seeds lying about that should have been planted last year. Or the year before. We’ll see if they germinate: milkweed; campanula; violets.

tulips z

cat tulip tango

One successful experiment has been my “tulip tomato tango.” I learned about this from, where else, a company that sells bulbs. In fall, when you pull the tomato plants up, you put tulip bulbs in those raised beds. Since they’re inside a fence, the deer and rabbits can’t get to them. Plant early to midseason varieties, and in spring you have gorgeous flowers that are finished blooming by the time you want to put in the tomato plants. Not only lovely, but efficient.

I like to say this is me making progress in the garden, but the garden did it mostly on its own. Yes, I planted the bulbs, but then I went inside and did nothing all winter. No weeding, No feeding. That’s my favorite, wonderful thing about bulbs: they show how the natural world makes its own progress, even when the possibility for progress elsewhere is slight.

Pandemic Spring

Here in Michigan where the coronavirus has a firm grip, the governor has closed spring?businesses deemed inessential. Including garden stores. While I’m as outraged as the next gardener that she doesn’t consider seeds and plants for warm weather crops essential, I, apparently unlike some others, have looked out the window. This is what I see.

Here’s the thing. The average last frost date for Ann Arbor is May 21st. This means if you put warm weather plants out there on April 15th they will die. Any time in April that there’s precipitation overnight, there’s a good chance it will be snow. I even have photographic snowdaffs 2proof: snow on my daffodils, and the fact that snow does not bother my daffodils. They expect it. People ought to, but they say things like, “Late Season Storm Barreling Down,” instead of  “Still Cold In Michigan But You Knew That, It’s Why You’re Not Out There Planting Your Tomatoes.”

Impatience tends to hang in the air as spring advances, and now there’s this virus to be tired of, too. March was 487 days long, and the first half of April went about the same way. But signs that things are creeping toward improvement only make some people even more impatient.

april tomatoesUpstairs in my front window, the tomato seedlings I started weeks ago are staying cozy, unfurling themselves a leaf or two at a time. Change is coming, slowly. When it gets here, my seedlings and I will be ready.

In Praise of Spider Solitaire

tomato seedlings

Meanwhile, in the upstairs window

Sometimes you need to back off and not think about anything for a while. Though solitaire is a game easily played with a two-dollar deck of cards, using a powerful electronic device and a fiberoptic network makes it feel more like someone else is playing it with you. For further justification, I have discovered Spider Solitaire. It requires two suits each from four decks, 104 cards in ten piles to start and eight piles to finish. Who has four decks of cards? How would I keep them all from sliding out of order and ending up on the floor? This was clearly a good use of my laptop.

It is a modest game. No one is killed, no thrones are violated, no treasure is amassed, and there are no consequences for winning or losing. I started with a feeling that competence would win out. Gradually I realized how unlikely it was that the cards I needed would turn up as I needed them. I began to suspect some entity knew what I needed and was deliberately withholding it. This used to be called paranoia. Today it’s called an algorithm.

Soon I realized it was a waste of energy to be suspicious. My object was to be playing a game. If I lost I would just play another game, which was the whole idea anyway. Did I really aspire to being a Spider Solitaire champ? Winning the game was immaterial. Therein was its charm: relief from the gloating frenzy of accusative winners mistaking accident for virtue.

When I do get all the cards in order, a banner comes up with a bright, cheery-looking “You Win!” Thank you, Spider Solitaire, for rewarding perseverance. It’s what we all need to do now. Persevere. Stay home. Play Spider Solitaire, and be safe.

Spring Is Not Cancelled

helleboresDoug was preparing to teach the rest of his classes by video conference, we’d laid in a stock of groceries, and I had crossed half a dozen concerts and several parties off my calendar, feeling anxious and distressed, when I looked out the window and saw this.

And realized it was time to start my seedlings! Yay! Doug carton cutsbrought my folding tables upstairs to the guest bedroom. I got my collection of saved milk cartons out of the garage, poked drainage holes into them, shoveled in some potting mix, and rifled through my newly-arrived seed packets. In addition to my favorite tomatoes – Black Pearl and Burpee Supersteak – I am planting another set of Indigos. These are the ones that turn dark blue when they ripen, so the squirrels don’t recognize them as tomatoes and eat them. Or they didn’t last year. Let’s hope squirrels are slow seed catalogslearners. I’m also starting Japanese eggplant, and white Profusion zinnias, a low-growing, almost groundcover type. Nurseries tend to have them in mixed colors, and I use the white ones to give a little coherence to the front flower bed’s wild – well, let’s call it broad – assortment.

Happy Birthday Rossini and Frederick

sleep year day

sleep year day?

Gioachino Rossini would be celebrating his 57th birthday today if he hadn’t died 152 years ago; and if you’re a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan you know about Frederick. Born in Leap Year on the 29th of February and indentured till his 21stbirthday, he found himself bound to be a pirate’s apprentice to the age of 84.

My local news reveals that seven such Leap Day babies were born today in Flint; no word on how many in Ann Arbor, but presumably as many as are born on February 28th or March 1st. Somehow it doesn’t strike us that way. We know about the Flint babies because someone

deerswerve 2

deer too drunk to leap?

considered it a photo op and made cute little Leap Day infant onesies for them, but I’ve already seen online comments suspecting a conspiracy. They haven’t said what kind yet, but they will. This is our human heritage: assemble two or three random facts, and draw wild conclusions. It’s harmless enough where birthdays are concerned, but then we apply it to everything from the political opinions of our erstwhile friends, to the spread of coronavirus. Could we please stop that?

The operetta ended happily; some of Rossini’s operas ended in tragedy, but some were happy, too. Let’s hope things work out well for the new crop of Leap Day babies.

Valentine’s Day

valentine 1This year the entire outdoors is suitably lacy for Valentine’s Day. The snow is piled artistically on every tree branch, the cardinals flit about like red paper hearts, and I spent some time in the kitchen making fudge for Doug. The three classical radio stations I listen to (interspersed, not all at once) have been playing Puccini arias, Brahms intermezzi, slow valentine 3movements of Mozart, and other blissful romantica all day. The UPS man delivered a long, green florist box that opened to a dozen long-stemmed red roses.

I love all of it, but there’s something especially romantic to me about Valentine’s Day in the snow. Red roses are more special against the valentine 2white winter of Michigan. In California they had to compete with spring in full sway, cherry and plum blossom, azalea, geranium, tulips – a banquet in a yard that never went hungry. But here came my roses, my box of roses, delivered by a figure booted and hatted against a temperature barely out of single digits. We’re halfway through winter, sledding into spring. Let’s enjoy the ride.