Archive for April, 2006
The local “garden center” might just as well be called the “flower cemetary” because most everything that is bought at those emporiums of cheap and colorful plant flats will die within the week. And likely nobody will mourn if they do. I remember watching a neighbor of some years ago–flush with the enthusiasm of the new homeowner–cart home flats of petunias on Saturdays for placement along the front walkway. They would be dead by Friday. Usually because he had forgotten to water them. This went on for the entire summer until he finally figured out that they were all going to die no matter what he did–so he put in lawn.
House plants are notorious death mongers. A friend once asked me about a wilting specimen–it had been a gift–of a large leaf oxalis or wood sorrel. The thing was trying to go dormant for the season but my friend thought it was dying. I explained that the plant was a sort of bulb and would come back next spring. But this is not a good trait for a houseplant and I believe it was abandoned, or perhaps planted, soon thereafter. I have been rescuing a giant philodendron from near death on a regular basis for over a decade now. Always on the verge of expiring, I reluctantly revive it with a soak in the bathtub for another month. It was a birthday present from my brother and some deep rooted familial obligation compels me to keep it alive.
When the beautiful pink-flowered albizia began to die in my parents’ garden, however, it was a deeply felt tragedy. The tree had graced the patio for decades with its lacy green boughs, cooling an otherwise unbearably hot spot. It decayed and failed, year by year, to replenish its leafy branches and now looms like the Grim Reaper over the garden. My parents cannot not bear to replace it, preferring to see the old tree to its end.
I’ve had many small deaths in my garden, mostly experiments of short duration; flowers that couldn’t take the heavy soil or lack of summer rain; native plants too sensitive to grow anywhere but their preferred rare habitat; and a mature Meyer lemon that up and succumbed one summer to what I think was oak root fungus. But no major losses have left me bereft.
This spring, the wettest in a hundred years, has affected my garden in contradictory ways with some plants thriving on the abundance of water and others delaying their normal growth period or seeming to fade away altogether. I began to notice that one of my two Ribes (R. sanguineum var. glutinosum) or pink-flowering currants was wilting. The new leaves just pushed out at the branch tips and froze in time, seemingly petrified while its sister plant six feet away was busily pushing out lush new growth. The currant was one of my first plantings over ten years ago, the reliable March robin of my garden, its drooping pink panicles signaling to the rest of the plants that spring was near. Now the dead currant is a brittle skeleton rising above my blooming Heucheras.
The second tragedy this April is another old friend, the Oyama magnolia (Magnolia sieboldi). It was my first significant garden “structure” plant. I was too ignorant then to really know where it should go and stuck it in an awkward corner where the dirt was particularly heavy. It never thrived but persisted in its charming way, delighting me with its graceful presence and, sparingly, its exotic flowers. Now it too is dying. Only two of its slender branches have leafed out. The others are stiff and leafless, the wood lacking that visible pulse of life that spring brings to deciduous trees.
While my old plant friends expire, the scarlet oak is pushing off its mantle of dead leaves and unfurling the pale green lace of a new gown. The Japanese maples are chartreuse with new life. And the rose canes are sporting the distinctive russet of new leaf. Just as they do every spring.
The garden, however, will not be the same garden. There is an intimacy that grows between a gardener and a garden. It may be my garden but the plants are themselves, entities of their own realm. I may plant another Ribes but it won’t be the same individual that died. And although I have planted and protected these plants, worried about them, fed and watered them, shaped them and admired them, they have in some way merely acquiesced to being my garden. When they go, some of my gardener’s heart goes with them.
The old elm at Crawley, by Jacob George Strutt
It stopped raining. One glorious sunny day. My deep lugubriousness vanished and I rushed out to bask in radiance. The skies were electric blue. The garden glinted and vibrated with color. I grabbed my camera to capture some of the exuberant light.
As the “washing machine” weather cycle continues here, rinsing us daily with torrents of water, I haven’t seen much of the garden. Sometimes I don rubber boots and a wide-brimmed hat to run out and cut some herbs or check on the progress of the sweet peas (making sure they haven’t been eaten). But mostly I just run down to the basement to turn the pump on. I opened the basement door in this process to check on the hose running out the cat door and found a salamander clinging to the door, and another one trying to creep in over the threshold. These were the “legless” kind, or California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus) commonly found around here and coastal northern California. I tried to shoo it off the door but it just raised its tail and dropped to the floor. I got my gloves and attempted to pick it up but, as I thought it would, the little guy just jettisoned his tail and played dead. The tail coiled and squirmed in a pretty good imitation of a live something-or-other. But it didn’t fool me. I finally got him out the door (while the cat looked on interestedly), wondering what would become of his tail.
But I didn’t have to worry about what would become of the salamander who would eventually grow a new tail. In fact, according to an article I read just the day before, the salamander can regrow its limbs, jaws, lens and retina of the eyes, and its intestine–as well as its tail. It takes about a month.
I’m not sure why the salamanders were trying to get into the basement. Though at the moment it is probably the perfect spot for creatures preferring damp environs even if a large hairy predator makes frequent forays down the stairs.
The Doe Library bookstore is history. Once tucked away down a narrow hallway in the neo Classical book temple of UC Berkeley, it was the bookstore of a bibliophile’s dreams. Full of discards from other campus libraries, the small and obscure ones that were gradually consolidated and closed down: cultural anthropology, geography, naval architecture, botany, slavic languages….and of old books that nobody wanted anymore. It was here that I found treasures like Gardens of the World, with oversize fine-grained black-and-white photos of gardens arrested in their pre-WWII incarnations. Also odd floras of places unknown to me. These gems sit on my bookcase, unread until a moment of curiosity strikes. Yesterday the moss green spine of The Flora of Dumfriesshire caught my eye.
A small volume, the inside cover bears a curious bookplate showing a room with a bookcase below a window looking out upon The Campanile, the bell tower of the Berkeley campus. A pair of bearded iris flanks the window and the name Charles Atwood Kofoid sweeps across on a triple banner. A cartouche below the bookcase reveals in minute detail a sailing ship on a roiling sea below which small, botanically accurate single-cell creatures float, ready to be caught up in the conical net of the sea-going scientist.
The title complete: The Flora of Dumfries-Shire Including Part of the Stewartry of Kirkudbright. Published in 1896 by G.F. Scott-Elliott and “assisted by” J. M’Andrew, J.T. Johnstone, the Misses Hannay, G. Bell, R. Service, Rev. W. Andson, B.N. Peach, and T. Horne. Dumfriesians all and avid notationers of the rich plant life of a land curiously like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbiton. In this case we must find on a map the Mull of Galloway in Solway Firth and follow from its coastal estuary the River Nith which meanders eastward to Drumlanrig, the Scaur, and Beld Craig Linn.
A hand drawn map folded into a pocket of the back cover offers a tabletop lexicon of the Scottish countryside where a water is a creek, and designated Water of Milk, or Water of Nith; a burn appears to be a smaller stream; linns are groves and corries mountain ravines. A scaur, unlike a craig, is bare “whinstone rock” and broken boulders. A lake is a loch and a holm an alluvial plain in the dales of river valleys. Peat comes in bogs and haggs.
Already by the end of the 19th century in this thinly populated farmland the “introduced” and exotic species are numerous. Many plants are “escapes” from domestic gardens. Vinca major, the blue periwinkle that is a scourge of Oakland hillsides, was even then in Dumfriesshire a vigorous weed.
Elliot’s et al. flora follows the strict botanical (Linnean) nomenclature of the time, but common names are included for locally named species. This revealed a curious fact. The most common names for wild plants were concentrated in two categories: ferns and thistles. Of the ferns, there were 18 common names (of 15 genera). One fern was called “parsley”, and there were maidenhairs, and rue, a Male Fern, Broad Buckler, Mountain Shield, and Hard Fern. There were fewer thistle species but each had a local name (two of them identified as “escapes”), including the Milk, Spear, Marsh, Creeping, and Melancholy thistle.
Carduus heterophyllus, so named by that intrepid cataloger Linneas, but familiar to Dumfriesians as “Melancholy Thistle” is found along the silty alluvial dales of the River Nith, first sighted by J. Shaw, Esquire, of Tynron, and verified by the Misses Hannay, who noted “Specimens seen”.
One only wishes for a small portrait and the names of the botanical sisters Hannay.
Lingering over a leisurely Sunday breakfast of waffles and coffee, reading the book review section of the Chronicle (“The Weather Makers”, by Tim Flannery, on global climate changes resulting from human activities), and watching the rain drip down the window….the phone rings. Lo, it is the California Department of Health wanting to know if I would agree to complete their survey. I would and do. Thirty-five minutes later, I have two conflicting feelings:
1) I feel good because “gardening” is, apparently, one of the activites, along with golfing, walking, and doing yoga, that is considerd to be “moderate” exercise. When asked how often in a day I engage in “moderate exercise” I can honestly say “one hour”. That’s because I spend at least an hour “gardening”.
Maybe it’s just carrying pots from one side of the yard to another, or hauling armloads of detritus from the pile at the back of the yard to the Green Bin and wheeling the bin up the hill to the curb. But it could also be whacking the grass with the electric weed whacker until my arms ache because the savannah is two feet high, or turning the compost.
That is the single most exhausting gardening job I know (ok, maybe digging a hole in wet adobe is Number One but I don’t do that unless I’m forced to). My “system”, the Smith and Hawken 3-tier plastic stacking compost bin, requires me to lift the worm-and-compost encrusted tiers off one at a time and fork the wet compost into a new pile, adding “brown” material as I go. Given the messy nature of the job I am usually adorned in long rubber gloves, rubber garden clogs, old pants, and an old shirt buttoned up to my neck. Oh, and my hair must be tied into a ponytail or else it sticks to my sweaty face and there is no way to shove it aside without taking off the gloves or wiping compost across my forehead with a muddy glove. In the summer I forgo the long pants and just hose off afterward.
If I’m not turning the compost then I’m usually shoveling the ripe stuff around the garden–and there is no help from a wheel barrow; it falls over on the slopes and there’s no easy path over the deck, through the raised beds, or across random stepping “stones” around the borders. I just carry shovels full one at a time. Or else I’m weeding, repotting the plants that have spent too long in too small containers, climbing trees, sawing tree limbs and pruning roses, lifting pavers, or repairing the fences. I’m really glad to know it qualifies as moderate exercise because otherwise my butt is glued to a chair in front of a computer, or sinking into a cushion with a book in my hand.
2) I was less sanguine after this question from the California Department of Health surveyer: “How many helpings of carrots do you eat 1) in a day 2) in a week?”
Except for the occasional soup ingredient? None. Now I’m wondering if this is a trick question, or a stealth suggestion. Eat carrots, or else! Is there some new study that shows eating carrots will prevent heart disease, liver disfunction, cavities, death? I went to look in my refrigerator to see if I had any carrots in there. There were two. Lonely old things.
p.s. I also found a carrot in the compost.