Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Working Wonders

or Heavy Lifting

When I envision "workhorses" they're not usually pink and fluffy.  The other night I watched the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small, where James Herriot tends to a draft horse—a literal work horse, the real McCoy, with its bell-shaped hooves and gentle-giant demeanor.  A metaphorical workhorse ought to be like that, too:  sturdy, imperturbable, gifted with immense stamina, willing to do your heavy lifting in exchange for a little hay and a pat on the nose.

Not pink, with little frothy things sticking out all over.

Along the side of my townhouse is a long, skinny planting area where Jupiter's beard (Centranthus ruber) cuts quite a dash with the Russian sage.  I water it once, deeply, in spring; during our rare rainstorms it gets the runoff from the canales.  Other than that, it fends for itself.  It starts blooming in May and some years keeps going until Christmas or later.  In winter its foliage turns a beautiful red.

Plants that flower for months on end also tend to do lots of this, of course:

For the first time since early June (don't hate me—it's a tiny, heavily mulched, dry climate garden during a drought year) I have weeding to do, and almost all of it is Jupiter's beard.  I usually leave some of the seedlings where they are.  This one, for example, showed up last year just outside the kitchen door against the north side of the house and has been blooming enthusiastically all summer: 

I have never given it a lick of attention.  It has never once been watered, and our official rainfall total for the year so far is 1.91 inches.  Every morning I accidentally step on it in fuzzy slippers; early this summer the aphids played Dracula with it.  Now, with the sun moving farther south, the main stems are having to sprawl horizontally to get the blossoms into the sunlight.  The centranthus hasn't minded any of that.  It just blooms, blooms, blooms.  And a cheerful sight it is, greeting you the minute you step out the door, inviting you into its world of vibrant color.

You can mouse over the image to see the original photo.  Not that the original
is so different or interesting, but I've just learned how to do this little bit of
bloggy schtick and am kind of jumping up and down about it. 

I was thinking about a conversation a friend had with his father a few years ago.  The father had grown up on a farm during the Depression and didn't see the point of keeping pets if they weren't working animals.  A cat ought to be a mouser; a dog should hunt or guard.  Otherwise, they were a waste of food.  My friend, on the other hand, held that "companion animals" do different but no less important work.

Luther T. Dog was their case in point.  Luther was a beagle and coon hound mix, hard wired by both sets of ancestors to lie around on a sunny porch (or comfy sofa) all day and then, when something interesting-smelling came along, to chase it up a tree and bark at it.  (Surely this is the pinnacle of dogdom.)  His "work" was to nose out small game, and if only I had kept up my end of the bargain and hunted it down, he would have been happy to work all day.  I never did, but we enjoyed many an off-leash ramble through the woods in southwestern New York, Luther chasing things up trees and barking, me calling him back to what we thought of as heel.

Enjoyed.  I write that word and shake my head at its inadequacy.  Luther and joy went together coffee and mugs; it's hard to envision one without the other.  He was joy, joy in a fur coat, more than any dog I've ever known.  I can't think of anyone who liked dogs at all that wasn't touched—soothed, gladdened, even inspired—by his unclouded delight in each new moment, in each new experience (unless tile floors or houseflies were involved, of course).  Trust me, that dog helped with a lot of heavy lifting at need.

"You're useless," my friend's father told Luther, right before scratching him under the chin and giving his chest an affectionate rub and getting his own face licked and slipping a little food under the dinner table.  My friend winked at me and rested his case.


Some plants earn their keep in the garden by doing obvious work:  anchoring a bed, bearing fruit, balancing a color scheme, or any number of other practical tasks.  Others operate on more subtle levels—soothing, gladdening, inspiring.  They'll help you through a rough patch just by blooming, by growing in good, honest dirt.  They'll embody your joy in their translucent colors, they'll lift your spirits in wonder at each tiny, perfect detail.

It's as if the seeds bud and flower, too.

For me those "companion" plants change from day to day, mostly depending on which one I'm paying the most attention to at the time.  Today it happens to be Jupiter's beard, admirable on so many levels.  Sturdy, imperturbable, gifted with stamina, willing to help with all kinds of heavy lifting—that sounds like a pink and fluffy workhorse to me.

Go on, give it a pat on the nose.


  1. That's a totally new plant to me. One thing I like about reading garden blogs is how different garden and climate conditions are in different parts of the country. Jupiter's beard seems perfectly suited to your garden.

    The reference to James Herriott drew me in - one of my all-time favorite authors. Since my teenage years, I have returned to his books again and again for his humor and simplicity and appreciation of the beauty of ordinary people and the natural world ...

  2. Sheila, I love that exposure to different concerns and conditions as well--it's fun to do some vicarious shade or tropical or cold-climate gardening now and then. I'm a little bit nervous about just how well suited Jupiter's beard seems to be. I know it's invasive in some places, but here it doesn't seem to be thuggish about it. Yet. In the meantime, at any rate, it's delightful.

    Believe it or not, I'm just now discovering James Herriott. You've inspired me with a trip to the library tomorrow.

  3. I love the way you tie the plants and living creatures together. I don't have the energy to tend a garden, but have a few flowers in pots outside.

    I love your pix and thank you for brightening my days:)


  4. I have such a hard time with Jupiter's beard. I keep moving the pink ones from place to place. My workhorses have been my artemisia and sterile nepeta.

    I love James Herriott. I've only read the first book, but I used to watch the TV show with my parents when I was younger.

  5. Thank you for the description of Luther T. Dog - I strive for that attitude to life.

  6. When we were in England we once visited the town where the Herriot films were made. Got a row of his books on one of my shelves.

  7. Elaine, I think even a few flowers in pots give a huge amount of cheer—flowering houseplants, too. I have a “flamingo plant” that practically glows all winter long. I hope you get to enjoy many brighter days this week!

    GirlSprout, you wouldn’t think those 70 miles would make such a huge difference, but they do. I had a ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia for a couple of years, but the aphids killed it. I’ve thought of trying the A. frigida next year.

    Jill, Luther was a good role model in many ways. (But not in some others.)

    Diana, I’d love to see that countryside some day and clearly need to track down those books. The library branch I went to this weekend didn’t have any Herriot on the shelves.

  8. What a treat, settling down on the sofa and watching the first ever 'All Creatures Great and Small'. Great casting, I think, though I was never truly convinced by Christopher Timothy (James). I was up in Thirsk (the real Darrowby) a couple of years ago and stood outside 'Skeldale House' and (having first read the books as a nipper) you will have no idea how exciting, really exciting it was. Blooming miles from the Yorkshire Dales though - which doesn't seem to make sense. Read them if you can, not great lit but well told stories of a world that no longer exists. Make you laugh, make you cry. Perfect!

    I'll shut up now about all things Herriot - I have to go to work for goodness sake. And I didn't even get started on Luther! I should like to have met him.


    P.S. And as for that photo trick ..... well.

  9. Dave, seeing the actual house must have made the stories suddenly extra-real. I mean, you know they're not as fictional as Winnie the Pooh or something, but seeing that link to the real vet's practice would (for me) make them come alive in a whole different way. Now that settling down on the sofa season has come, I'm looking forward to watching more of the shows.

    Your photo of Hobbes grazing with one of her ears draped over a chicken, reminded me somehow of Luther.

    Hmm, yes, the photo trick. It might come in handy someday for a before-and-after shot, and I wanted to be sure I could find the code again...

  10. I haven't mentioned it on the blog - don't know whether I will, but we had to put Hobbes to sleep last Friday. It has been such a difficult time and we're all cried out with achey eyes. She was the nicest, sweetest, most beautiful and loving girl and we miss her terribly. Having the stinky little terrier has helped enormously though she seems pretty bewildered too.

    Anyway, that's why I haven't been about much the past week or so. You simply don't realise how much a dog is going to fill your life, do you? Poor Hobbes.


  11. Ah, Dave, I'm so sorry. That's such a painful decision to make, even when you know it's the right one. You're right, you don't really anticipate how much that sense of a loving presence will work its way into your life--Hobbes sounds like she was one of the best. I'm sorry for having inadvertently rubbed salt in the wound, poor man. Give Solo an extra scritch behind the ears, even (or maybe especially) if it annoys her.

  12. Stacy, I love these posts where you make these illuminating connections between things that seem totally unrelated on the surface (workhorses, flowers, and pet dogs!). Another great post. -Jean

  13. Jean, thank you--and it's good to see you come up for air, amid the grading and advising and committee work and all the rest!