Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cussedness: The Sequel

or Off-Script

Cast of Characters (all Prunus besseyi):
The Sad Sand Cherry 
Still haunted by its violent encounter with a workman's boots.  Brooding but brave.
The Slow Sand Cherry
Cautious and uncertain, despite the advantages of its upbringing.  Always comes through for you in the end, or maybe a little later.
The Teacher's Pet Sand Cherry 
Reads horticultural books on sand cherry behavior and obeys them.  Never a leaf out of place.  Pleasant, yes; quirky and interesting, not so much.
The Big Hairy Monster Sand Cherry 
Has the bad habit of looming, but can't really help itself.  It means well and means it enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, the cast list is as far as we can get with this particular comedy, because none of the characters is willing to act in the same play.  (The Teacher's Pet did try.)  I'm not really surprised.  In Cussedness (The Original) the four sand cherries went completely off-script when they welcomed autumn, each one ad-libbing the scene as if the others weren't even there.  What chaos!  Four little solo numbers, each delightful in its own way, but all running simultaneously.  My, my.

For four months now the cherries have had nothing to do but hang out together and rehearse their lines for Welcome, Spring!  You'd think they would have had time to hone their ensemble work, but no.  Now that the play has opened, each cherry is once more enacting its own separate scene, playing to the crowd in its own corner of the garden.

The Sad Sand Cherry, except for six blossoms at the tip of one stem, has chosen to forgo flowering altogether and focus its attention on leaves.  A wise choice, one feels, and suited to its serious character.  The healthy glow of the foliage is eloquent on its own—minimalist, yet luxuriant; understated, yet hopeful.  By focusing on technique this year, this cherry may really get its feet under it and grow.  Next spring perhaps it won't be typecast in such sad roles any more.  If it ever gets to be more than two feet tall, I envision it in something quite heroic.

Sad, but not as Sad as it was.

The Slow Sand Cherry has a few blossoms and leaves dotting its many stems and branches, with more appearing every day.  Very lovely they are, too, now that they're no longer quite towered over by the salad burnet.  Some of the flowers are opening; some are still back in the dressing room.  If Hamlet were to welcome spring, this is how he would go about it, and spring would be a five-act play that lasted a good, long while.


The Teacher's Pet is absolutely loaded with buds.  With the Pet's usual exquisite timing, the flowers ought to open just as the tulips and ipheion at their feet are showing their best.  T. Pet's tallest branches are the perfect height for the sun to strike them, ting! as it tops the wall in the morning, giving each of the high, snow-white buds its own little halo.  Ingenue or diva?  A flawless performance, either way.

Oh-So Perfect.

The Big Hairy Monster, despite its recent, accidental pruning, is putting on a glorious Ziegfeld Follies number, playing chorus, dancers, and orchestra all by itself.  Looking up through its branches at the sky, I find myself quoting, "Even Solomon in all his glory wasn't arrayed like these." The fragrance of all the flowers fills the walled garden with a wild sweetness that makes me want to break into song and dance, too.  What a fabulous grand finale.

The sweetest, most attractive monster you ever will see.
Except that it isn't the finale.  It's the opener, the first of the cherries to bloom, and a hard act for the others to follow.  There goes B. H. Monster, looming again.  Enthusiastically.

Once more may I point out that the whole idea of planting four identical (ahaha) shrubs in the four quadrants of the garden was to create a single, overall effect?  To have the garden be a white froth of blossom in springtime?  In this case the goal isn't only aesthetic:  the cherries are not self-fruitful.  For fruit to set on, multiple cherry bushes have to be in bloom.  At once.  That is to say, all at the same time.  Otherwise, the bees' pollinating work goes for naught.  (The Teacher's Pet, of course, always manages to fruit well.)

So much for directing—really, I'm just here to applaud.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


or A Pleasantly Unvarnished Truth

The word "soft" takes up a lot of space in the dictionary.  It's a broad-shouldered, good-natured word, and so naturally ends up doing a lot of extra work.  A quick glance down the list of definitions shows that most of the work is pleasant, at any rate, even relaxing.  Soft can mean:  pleasing, agreeable; bringing ease, comfort, or quiet; mellow, subdued, gentle, smooth, delicate; balmy, mild or clement; not violent; demanding little work or effort; leisurely, curved, unassuming, low-key; marked by kindness or tenderness... Such lovely ideas, all redolent of ease, and all wrapped up in that one word, "soft."

'Lady Jane' tulips and grape hyacinths

One of the things I love most about spring is that it gives us back the gift of shade.  All winter the east-facing patio and garden are sunny and comfortable in the morning but off-limits for casual enjoyment after noon.  In the morning, the sun is happy to tell tall tales and let you pretend that the temperature is much warmer than it actually is.  Then it crosses the roofline and leaves you with shade, which always tells the cold, unvarnished truth.   Shade sends you inside to put on another sweater and behave yourself.

In spring the shade has kinder truths to tell.  Unseasonably warm weather this week has made the patio a comfortable place to sit again in the afternoons, to work the crossword puzzle, draft a blog post, watch the goldfinches.  But the biggest enjoyment has been the soft light of shade—not the glow of winter sun or the blare of summer, not the dark shadows against the north-facing wall, marked off from the sunlight by a straight, hard line, but the gentle, even light of New Mexico's ambient brightness.

In winter the sun is our haven; in summer we take refuge in shade.  In spring both sun and shade are equally soft—they are mild, clement places to enjoy the soft colors, soft fragrances, soft temperatures.

No other refuge is necessary.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Done In

or In Which We Wage an Epic Battle

Actually, the subtitle is a little misleading.  The epic battle has already been waged and won, and now the biggest sand cherry and I are off nursing our wounds.  I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow replay, but our opponent was the hunk of concrete below:

It's a little over a foot long, about six inches wide, and four deep.  I hadn't meant to start a tussle, but then, who does?  Yesterday while I was loosening the soil under the cherry to plant some dwarf columbines (Aquilegia chrysantha var. chaplinei 'Golden Treasure'), my trowel came across the hunk of cement about eight inches down, not wanting to be loosened.  (Where was it five years ago, when I dug through the whole garden twice just to get rid of such things?)  Thirty minutes of root- and branch-breaking, vocabulary-stretching work later, victory was ours.  The sand cherry and I are both done in, but it will have been worth it.  At least, it had better be.

I'm off to bed again for a while.  A pity.  I was thinking so many exciting thoughts about mulch, just perfect for a sparkling post.  Another time, I suppose.

In the meanwhile, I have some vocabulary to unlearn.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Reading between the Lines

or Histories

You'd think that anything written on a scroll of papyrus would bristle with the wisdom and experience of ancient cultures:  chronicles of might and conquest, disputes on philosophical matters, records of scientific discoveries.  Tales of battle and love among the gods, or maybe gossipy anecdotes of misbehavior in high places—those would be OK, too.  While there's a fair amount of all that, a lot of papyri are plain old financial records.  Household accounts.  Numbers and lists.  They were just thrown out on the ancient Egyptian dust heaps, there to await discovery by future generations.  (And 2,000-year-old Egyptian dust heaps must by now be very dusty indeed.)

To romantics, lists of income and expense don't have much appeal.  To historians, though, they're meat and drink.  When you find out how people made and spent money, you find out something about what they valued, how they ran their households, what they ate.  You might not learn much about that culture's most epic achievements, but by reading between the lines you can learn a lot about what people did every day, and what their lives were like.

Sand lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes)

I was thinking about papyrus and scrolls (and Piroulines) while looking at new growth in the sand lovegrass.  Young shoots are beginning to come in with enthusiasm, and they are a bright, lively, unscarred green.  The wide blades of fresh grass hardly resemble last year's growth, though.  The older blades curled inward as they dried; each one is ridged and hollowed.  Seasonal death took each blade and seed stalk in a unique way, giving the old growth texture and character.  It has a history, a tale to tell.

Tales aren't only the province of the old, of course.  Many of the bright young things in the garden have stories of their own.  This crocus, for example, lost part of a petal, on only its second day of blooming.  (I don't know how long that is in crocus years.)

Crocus tomasiniana 'Ruby Giant'

What happened?  What hungry insect stopped in for a bite, or what wind took advantage of a weak spot to shear the petal off as it opened in the sun? 

This tulip, too, has already had a hard-knock life:

Tulipa praestans 'Shogun'

It hasn't even gotten around to budding yet, but its leaves are battered and misshapen, especially compared to the pristine curves of its neighbors.  What happened to it, all those inches underground, between its fall planting and the day it broke the surface a few weeks ago?  What obstacle did it struggle against as it grew?  I know about as much as if I were looking at Egyptian hieroglyphs with no Rosetta Stone to guide me.  A story lies within, but what?  Without knowing the language of flowers, I can't read between the lines. 

What do they matter anyway, the small stories of the daily lives of plants?  What do they matter, any more than the daily lives of people who lived so many centuries ago?  What difference does knowing the price of lentils in ancient Egypt make to the price of lentils today?  Maybe none.  But maybe, knowing that someone went to market and paid hard-earned cash for food, thinking about menus and servings and the possibility of leftovers, maybe knowing that could ignite some spark of realization—an insight, a sense of connection, of continuity.

The sense that in some small way, we are akin.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Center Stage

or Changing Priorities

Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi)

The bee wasn't desperate, just impatient.  She had crocuses, scilla, and grape hyacinths to choose from, but she was crawling over the fat, tightly closed buds of the largest sand cherry, digging at the patch of white just showing between the sepals.  Her eagerness had all my sympathy.  Spring is so near, and the cherry so close to bursting into flower that I feel ready to nudge those buds along myself, and I don't have a craving for sand cherry pollen.

A few days ago I was admiring the deep blue of a dawn sky, framed by the cherry's branches.

Since then the fattening buds have brought the branches from the margins to the foreground of my awareness.  The way those pale green nubs gleam in the sunshine has taken center stage.

Shifting between background and foreground—a lot of that happens in the garden this time of year.  The 'Winter Gem' boxwoods, which have been so delightfully green all winter, bless them, are now less interesting than the patch of ipheion at their feet (no buds yet, but soon).  The burnet in the main garden, which has been lush and shapely through the spare, lean months, is suddenly just a backdrop for grape hyacinths.  Even 'Wild Thing' autumn sage has been standing meekly by for once, while the crocuses get the glory.

Spring, with its small, pleasant upheavals, is good at making you see things differently.  Daily routines change as activities move from indoors to out; Daylight Savings Time shuffles morning and evening light around; windows opened to the breeze let a little life and movement back into the house.  (Pardon me while I go find a paper weight.)  When you have snow in the morning and lunch on the patio at noon, a little mental flexibility (not to mention layered clothing) is your friend.

I've been thinking about the garden lately while poring over bulb catalogs for fall planting* and thumbing for the umpteenth time through regional books and catalogs before the spring frenzy begins.  Ideas I was working with last summer when I started replanting the garden (and which many of you helped me with) have taken clearer shape over the last few months, and now New Mexico's famous spring winds are blowing away some old, lingering assumptions.  As a result, my excitement about sand cherries and crocuses notwithstanding, flowers have begun to take the back seat in my garden.  (I would never, ever have thought I'd say that.)  A number of things have moved forward to take their place, but the biggest factor, the one that's taking center stage at the moment and dancing an enthusiastic buck-and-wing on it, is light.  (Texture is warming up in the wings.)

In Plant-Driven Design, Lauren Springer Ogden and Scott Ogden talk about light as a feature of western gardens, but until recently I thought of light as an accessory to a floral-print outfit, not the other way around.  Now I see it differently—or realize that I've done so all along.  The reason I'm always as impatient as that bee for the sand cherry to bloom is because I love the blossoms' incandescence in front of the shady north-facing wall...

I have yet to take a picture of them that isn't either over-blown or too damped down, though.  March, 2011

I've been sitting on a sunny patio almost every weekend morning through fall, winter, and now early spring, looking south over the backlit garden and being dazzled as the sun glowed through turning leaves, ricocheted off grass seeds and blades, made the desert olives' pale gray trunks gleam, and set the oils in the autumn sage leaves to glistening.  Seeing the crocuses glowing with light this spring was the last step in moving background to foreground for me.  The garden and its leaves and flowers are lamps; they collect and shape light.

So as I consider new plants, I'm wondering how they'll play with dappled light under the olives, or how they'll give back summer radiance; whether they'll glow in the warm backlighting of autumn or in the low, white gleam of winter.  In some ways it's complicating matters; in others making them quite easy.  (There's no point in planting a grass with light-catching seed heads behind the winter shade line, no matter how sunny that spot is in summer.)  Every so often I make a note of what color the flowers are, in case that matters, too.

(And somehow, I suspect that it might.)
* It turns out that spring really is the best time to make your bulb list—another thing they say in gardening books that ends up being true.

Has anyone ever grown ornamental comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum)?  I was thinking of it for the deep shade under the big sand cherry but don't know if I'll regret it.  Other dry shade (think really dry, like, really, REALLY dry) suggestions would be welcome.  Thanks for any advice!

Thursday, March 8, 2012


or The Spirit of Rosemary Present

Cleaning out a garden bed in late winter reminds me of cleaning out the garage, if cleaning out the garage were fun.  At some point in your efforts you reach the bottom of a pile of something or other and make a discovery: "So that's where (something or other else) ended up!"  Long-lost treasures emerge from the forgotten recesses of time, kind of thing.

Like the occasional rosemary bush.  I certainly wouldn't claim to have forgotten that one was growing in the bed with the 'Wild Thing' autumn sage; after all, I've been pillaging it for soups and stews all winter long.  It's small enough, however, that it normally has the added charm of invisibility.  When I'm looking by fading daylight for some rosemary for a recipe, I find it by feel and smell as much as anything.  I seldom actually see it, and never in its full glory.  Pruning 'Wild Thing' away revealed the rosemary in its visible form.  After all these months it's a little startling to remember that it has one.

The Arp rosemary is supposed to be (and in another couple of years will be) one of the anchors of this bed, along with a Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis) and the three autumn sage.  I'd found the combination in the Curandera Garden at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden.  Horsetail reeds were growing there in a water feature across the path from a shaggy beast of a rosemary, their twiggy and feathery forms making an intriguing counterpoint; the hot, neon pink flowers of 'Wild Thing' autumn sage (Salvia greggii) offset the other plants' muted greens; and the whole color scheme was sent soaring by containers of orange and yellow French marigolds.  The hot colors may have been a little...vivid, but in the equally hot September sunshine they radiated New Mexico flair at its most exciting and alive.  In my own garden I substituted Ephedra for the horsetail, and 'Mersea Yellow' pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) for the marigolds.  Then I added in some wine cups, a couple of gaura,  a Mojave sage, a Lady Banks rose, some marguerites...  But other than that, the combination is the same.

One reason that the rosemary startled me when it turned visible again is that in my head, it is already the four foot tall anchor of that bed.  I have a vision of Rosemary Yet to Come, and in some small, subconscious way I forget that it is, indeed, yet to come.   In addition to seeing some futuristic rosemary, I'm also recalling stems and greenery that are no longer there, and all the dinners they gave me:  the truly delicious chicken and barley soup on a blustery evening; the safe stand-by dish of baked lentils and rice; the uninspired but edible pasta sauce (it's hard to go too far wrong with pasta sauce).  The Ghost of Rosemary Past still glimmers happily in the present.

The parts that you don't see were really tasty.

I didn't exactly use a recipe to create any of those meals, unless you count the lentils and rice, which in their original form featured ginger and Thai red curry paste instead of rosemary, bay leaf, and garlic.  (I still think that at heart they're the same recipe:  lentils, rice, water, and flavorings.  It's just that the flavorings have been tweaked a bit.)  But you know how it is.  You substitute one thing here and another there; you find some sort of equivalent; and it all kind of works out, more or less, at the end.  Or so you hope.  The first taste of the finished dish once you're seated at the table is the moment of truth.  Then you discover whether what you thought you were cooking resembles what you actually cooked.  Visions of an ideal future dissolve in present reality.

The rosemary is still caught in that creative time warp, where its present is all wrapped up in an ideal future.    Its bed is in the "cooking" phase, its moment of truth Yet to Come.  In the meantime, until it winks back into invisibility behind the autumn sage, the Spirit of Rosemary Present isn't really about the present.  It's about creativity, possibility, hope—all kinds of things.

Just not about the small, evergreen plant that it is.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


or The Grand Finale

The tarragon came back unexpectedly.  A little inconveniently, too.  I thought I had removed it all last summer while re-doing the central bed, but that's what I get for thinking.  This past week the tarragon began to put on a serious flush of growth amid the bed's newly sprouting seedlings.  Something needed to be done about it, say, to put it in a pot until some other plan shows up.   While mixing sand into potting soil then this morning, I found my mind drifting far from spring and herbs and seedlings and back all the way to Christmas.  The sand is left over from this past year's luminarias, one of the southwest's most beautiful Christmas traditions, and it reminded me of arranging the bags, and candlelight glowing through paper on the front step, and Old Town bright with festivity.

Really, though, was it the sand, or was it the light this morning, filling the bowls of the last 'Cream Beauty' crocuses, that made me think of luminarias?

C. chrysanthus 'Cream Beauty'

A pleasant synchronicity, in any case.  And isn't a crocus a kind of luminaria, a "festival light" showing the spirit of the season to your door?  We celebrate so many holidays with light—with birthday candles, fireworks, bonfires—that cheering on the advent of spring with a flower that shines brightly just seems right.

C. chrysanthus 'Blue Pearl'
Since beginning the Thirteen (or Fewer) Ways of Looking at a Crocus (or Some Equivalent) Challenge last month, I've tried to explore different facets of this charming spring flower.  Some of you have been kind enough to join me, and very enjoyable I've found the exchange.  Most recently, kininvie at Gardening at the Edge has posted Fewer than Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Crocus—a set of wise observations that could not be any more true.  And Dave, the Anxious Gardener, offers a wide-ranging view of the blooms in the Tudor Priory gardens he tends in Not Quite Thirteen Ways of Looking at Crocuses.

Previous posts include Wishing For..., a lovely meditation on time by Donna at Garden's Eye View; and the five very different Views of Forsythia, from herald to nuisance to exotica, by Jean of Jean's Garden. B-a-g at Experiments with Plants explores different qualities of saffron in Crocus, and Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys values crocuses for their very smallness in A Bloom of Significance.  My own posts have wandered through attitudes toward dearth and plenty, evocations of shy wildness, arrivals and departures, and mild but ecological comic relief.  Between us all, a far-flung set of approaches.

Now, for the grand finale, I'd like just to offer a festival of crocuses, to revel in these flowers for their own astonishing selves:  for the petals' delicate shadings from icy paleness to candlelit warmth, and the startling solar flare of style and stigma;

'Cream Beauty'

the transformation from sheath to petal in the first moments of opening;

C. tomasiniana 'Ruby Giant'

the whorls the petals make as they unfold in the sunshine (though these are blooming in full shade, but that's a technicality);

C. ancyrensis 'Golden Bunch'

and the colors that are so deeply saturated that they're just a step away from being pure light.

'Ruby Giant'

Last year I wrote one post about crocuses and felt that I'd said...not all that could be said, of course, but what I wanted to say about them.  This year I've found myself in a blogging quandary—how can (or why would) you keep posting, year after year, about a garden when the cycle of the seasons is the same?   How do you keep from growing stale?  How do you know when you already have, and when it's time to stop?

The "Thirteen Ways" and all of your contributions, kininvie, Dave, Donna, Jean, b-a-g, and Holley, have been delightful on their own.  They've also been incredibly helpful to me in my quandary, and I thank you all in a huge, huge way.  I suppose this endeavor is once again proof of that old truism:  if you're doubting your commitment to something, you should just engage with it more closely.  One way or another, you'll know.  The crocuses obviously still have plenty of material inside them, plenty of ways of prompting that “wow” that somehow turns into prose.  Meanwhile, we have Twelve Remarkably Different Ways of Looking at a Crocus (or Some Equivalent).

That leaves at least one for next year.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Photo Hogs

or The Tourist Experience

I've begun to feel like a tourist in my own garden.  Spring can be thanked for that, as can the extensive replanting done last fall and the new-to-me perennials now putting on fledgling growth.  Every day as I amble around the circle path or walk the length of the patio or sit on the kitchen doorstep, some wonder is waiting to be discovered.  Each venture into the garden is a voyage "for pleasure, instruction, or culture."

Even familiar things are basking in the glow of fresh light these days and looking new and wondrous.  I've been trying to foster that frame of mind in myself in any case with the Thirteen (or Fewer) Ways of Looking at a Crocus (or Some Equivalent) Challenge.  I have become a tourist of crocuses over the past few weeks, exploring their shadings and shapes, their translucence in sunlight, their gleaming iridescence.  But as is the case all too often when you're a tourist and taking a never-to-be-replicated photo of a sight you won't see again soon,

some schmoe

always has to get

in the way.

Grand Canyon, Mona Lisa, Taj Mahal, or tiny garden flower, it doesn't matter.  At some point when you're a tourist, whatever you're trying to photograph will be "bombed" by someone who just has to get his (or her—I'm not really up on my aphid sexing) licks in first.

An inset of the above.  Who knew that aphids had such big, brown eyes?

Looking at these little photo hogs, I find myself disconcerted to realize how much I have come to see the garden as a cultural experience.  I've come to realize that aphids, too, have their place in the world, with their own customs to be studied and respected and photographed in situ, and that crocuses, no matter how much I love them, are also the rightful food of the hungry—even of hungry pests—at the lean end of winter.  Then again, the word "culture" does come from "cultivate," and the verb "to culture" means "to maintain in conditions suitable for growth."   How could a garden be anything but a cultural experience?

Such a nice thought.  And yet, an even nicer one—

Whatever fate may befall other photo bombers, the aphids will turn into mantis food later this spring.

One of four mantis egg sacs that I know of in my tiny garden, which I am
endeavoring to maintain in conditions suitable for growth

The "Thirteen Ways Challenge" also invites others to join in if they like.  Donna at Garden's Eye View has written a wonderful meditation on time, in which crocuses play a part, in the post Wishing For...

Other lovely crocus posts have been written by b-a-g at Experiments with Plants and HolleyGarden at Roses and Other Gardening Joys.  Jean of Jean's Garden has written on five ways of viewing forsythia.  My thanks to all of you for chiming in!