HAPPENSTANCE

Happenstance

 

One of my favorite methods of gardening is anti-activity, the practice of disregard. Now, that’s not the same thing as neglect, which would mean not pulling weeds or watering, or any number of small things we do to keep our gardens lovely. Disregard is accepting what it is various plants and bushes decide to do on their own. Letting them be. Watching them insert themselves where they wish to, and not interfering.

 

We had to remove an infected tree from our hedge, so in the open space we planted a camellia bush and a red-twigged dogwood along the outer edge, scarlet runner beans on their pole trellises in front of those, and flowers in front. Hostas had already been there, and a poppy that came from who knows where. I found some flower seeds from last year and was gifted with some wildflower seeds, so I planted them all. Little sprouts are up now of those, but what has surprised me is that when I checked on this space after a two-week hiatus due to surgery, I found growing amongst the little flowers radishes ready to eat. What??? I don’t know for sure how they got there, and neither does my husband. As near as we can figure, radish seeds somehow were mixed in with the flower seeds. I love radishes and I’m enjoying this example of crunchy happenstance in my salads.

 

A long-standing disregard based on curiosity involves wild foxglove. I make bets with myself at the end of its season as to where it might decide to grow the following spring. I let the spent blooms lie where they fall so the results of the guessing game will be in my favor. If it’s a windy winter, though, the odds are no longer in my favor. The foxgloves’ decisions can either make for a great surprise in composition, adding height and pinkness to a section of a flowerbed, or disaster if it chooses a space where it looks awkward or it hogs a space where I want something else to be. That problem is easily solved, however, by a yank of prudent removal. The time for that, sadly, is now. Bye-bye foxgloves. See you next year, who knows where?

 

Almost a decade ago, my friend Liz was overrun by rose campion (Silene coronaria)(also called bloody William—eeuww!) (deer resistant and drought tolerant!) and in a fit she ripped them all out and gifted them to me. They take over, she told me. Oh, gee, thanks, Liz. But you know, they haven’t. She has rich river silt in her soil. I have compacted clay and that has made all the difference. I like how they look, and the greyish-green of their foliage is a nice contrast to their vermillion blooms. Their spread makes a nice drift. And they LOVE to drift! I never know where I’m going to find them from year to year. Only if I look for the little rosettes in the fall do I have any hint of where they will take over. Just because they have grown in one area throughout the summer, there’s no guarantee they’ll be in the same place next year. Their little feet like to roam. I treat them the same way I do with foxgloves. I send them packing if I don’t like where they’ve plunked themselves down. When the blooms are finished, I either stack the stems where I want some plants to be next year, or I cut off the dried blooms full of seeds and plant them the following spring, in an attempt to force them to grow where I please. Sometimes that works and sometimes not. That’s what I call laissez-faire disregard.

 

Wild daisies can also be unwelcome brigands in a manicured, planned bed, but I let some of them stay if otherwise I’d have an empty space, or if I’m waiting for a late riser to come up. The daisy blooms and dies to ugly stems, and then I remove it and the other plant rises to take its place. Usually, though, I don’t keep them underneath open windows, because they smell like dog wee. Sometimes our open pasture is full of them, and then they are pretty to look at, from a distance. They grow in the soil under trees and bushes, so there’s that in their favor, too, especially if a tree or bush blooms at the same time. Then I get to view a complementary double palette of color.

 

I’m a fan of happenstance in my garden because it’s like getting a present from Mother Nature. I don’t know what it’s going to be or where and I look forward to the surprise every year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SMALL JOYS–THE GARDEN IN EARLY MARCH

“How could we tire of hope?

–so much is in bud.”

–Denise Levertov

 

SMALL JOYS

 

We gardeners on the Oregon Coast have had enough of winter and its rain, rain, rain, all too often combined with hail, snow, gale-force winds and freezing temperatures. Either we don our rain coats, pants, and hats, brave the chill and wet, and do the bare minimum of what needs doing outside, or we stand looking out our windows and sigh, feeling despondent.

 

Instead, to beat the late winter drear, we could take a step, or several, towards the small joys, while waiting for the great ones, and relish the impermanence of Nature. Behind my window beaded with raindrops, I see the beginning yellow blossoms of the forsythia and the peach blossoms on the quince. Two deep rose camellia flowers have bloomed for a month now on the small bush we planted late last summer.

 

I see the bare, crimson branches of the red-twigged dogwood, a welcome jolt of blazing red against a dripping grey sky. I observe also the leaves emerging from the ‘Dark Knight’ buddleia, with its promise of deep purple spears, smelling of honey, come summer.

 

The pansies and primroses bloom a happy hello from their pots on our front porch and the pink and cream-colored hellebores do the same from their bed tucked in behind the barberry bush.

 

In the back hedge, I witness the pinkish hue of the leafy arrivals of the snowballs, the honeysuckle, and the wild currants, all shouting, “Soon!”

 

The stalwart daffodils have withstood every weather indignity, several sometimes at once. Alongside them, the nibs of hyacinths and tulips chant, “We are rising—just wait until we rise!”

 

The birds at the feeders—the chickadees, juncos, and scrub jays, the swarms of robins on the ground and in the sky, and the hummingbirds as hungry for red blossoms as I am—assemble in the herb garden. Any minute now the acrobatic swallows will arrive to give birth and raise their babies.

 

Everywhere in Oregon now, you can hear frogs croaking in the sodden fields and ditches.

 

What a relief it is to look with alert eyes and realize something good is happening out there beyond our walls.

 

Indoors, hands that yearn to be stuck in soil instead busy themselves creating pieces of art for the garden. I create a gazing ball from an old bowling ball, attaching broken pieces of glass and mirror in a pattern that will reflect sunshine and blooms from spring through fall. My husband paints his own version of prayer flags that will festoon the pergola.

 

As Herman Hesse said in the last century, “It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones…a thousand other tiny things from which one can weave a bright necklace of little pleasures for one’s life.”

 

Ahh!

How Did I End Up Here?

How Did I End Up Here?

I didn’t plan to be a gardener. In fact, my senior year of university I remember vowing to never live anywhere near a farm, where I’d lived through my teenage years, ever again. No more hands chapped, chaffed, and stained by soil or Black Walnut skins, no more broken, chipped fingernails, no more gloves with the ends of the fingers worn through, no more back sore from stooping and bending, no more picking hazelnuts up from the ground and stuffing them into my mother’s ruined nylon stockings, then hung to dry in the attic. No more sweating in noonday sun, picking raspberries and being scratched into a bloody mess. I even spurned one boyfriend’s proposal because I knew he would be a lifelong farmer. It would be the literary life for me—books, theater, symphony—and my life as a teacher. So it’s very curious, indeed, how I became the avid home gardener I am today.

At first, there was no place to BE a gardener in the town where I began my career. The weather in Southeast Oregon’s High Desert was not much conducive to farming in those days before backyard hoop houses. No one I met there had a greenhouse. But my hands and eyes got itching to play in the dirt and see things grow, even to pick those wretched raspberries. I began asking around and observed that some people did have gardens, and that they grew short season crops like radishes, green beans, and peas. I had a huge back yard and what else was I going to do with it? I’d missed the fresh vegetables every summer from my parents’ garden. If I hurried, between the last frost and blazing 100-degree weather, I could maybe get in some lettuce and broccoli. I, too, could spend time chopping up the hard, reddish-brown slugs of the region. The jars on the canning shelves in the basement began filling, as well as the freezer.

There still were not many flowers, only lawns and bushes, because, well…rattlesnakes, who hung out in the shade. The previous owner had planted phlox along the fence line, and those were flowers enough for me, then.

Ten years later, I had moved as far west as a person can go and still be on land, surrounded by lush greenery, and I thought I was in Heaven. I could really garden here! Once I bought a house, I put in a small garden, much to the consternation of my neighbor, who thought lawns looked much more dignified. He protested, à haute voix, to anyone who would listen, the sins of my garden fence. My gifts of fresh produce when summer came, hushed his tone to a quiet grumbling. I moved once again to a house with a hillside behind me, where I envisioned terraces of burgeoning flowers and a vegetable garden. Through trial and error, I learned how best to cultivate flowers and food a mile from the ocean, what grew and what didn’t and what worked to keep deer away (nothing, short of a shotgun).

Now I live inland on a lovely, flat acreage, where my husband and I grow flowers, small fruits, and vegetables; where we have a small orchard of fruit trees that give us more apples than we know what to do with every autumn. I am working in a garden of some sort from February to December. So much for young adult proclamations!

Why am I a gardener now? I have the genes of my father and his father before him. I also believe that the beauty of flowers and the magic of growing things wormed its way into my childhood brain until it was a part of me and an addiction I couldn’t and no longer wanted to battle. I can’t exist or imagine a life without sunshine and fresh air, my hands soaking up the healing microbes in the soil as I work. My guess is once you’ve spent time as a child in a garden, you’re a goner.

BERRY PICKIN’

Yesterday, I picked our blueberry bushes using my usual method—one for the mouth, one for the bowl, one for the mouth, one for …well, you understand. Also, as usual when out in nature, I fell into a contemplative mood.

I thought about how the birds had eaten their fair share of this summer’s blueberry production, even though Neal had erected blueberry cages. I knew the greedy birds had had their fill because I got one of the bandits, a teensy goldfinch, who upon seeing me, tried his darndest to escape the net. It was clear he’d forgotten the way and he was having a panic attack. He had gotten inside the cage because there was a fraction of an opening at the bottom but surprised by my arrival, he couldn’t find it directly. Since he was so absolutely cute, I did the only thing I could do. I unzipped the cage and he located open sky and flew.

I imagined the birds, already devouring what they wished, telling each other, “Now, leave something for the humans. Don’t eat ALL the berries!”

Or maybe they’d left some because they, like small planes, had to consider weight distribution before taking off.

As I picked, I thought about the Eastern Oregon equivalent of blueberries, the mighty and supreme huckleberry. Huckleberries are so coveted that families have their own maps of patches known only to them and them pass them down from parents to children. While cleaning out my files recently, I came across the one my father had drawn for me in order to reach a Mt. Adams patch.

Legends have been written about the huckleberry and its scarcity makes it even more special to those of us who tracked patches of it every summer, stripping the bushes for our jams, syrups, ice creams, and eating it right from the hand. I can taste that sweet tartness even now.

When we lived in Rockaway, we were blessed with Western Oregon huckleberry bushes which I protected from deer, bear, and humans. One patch grew near the mailboxes we shared with our neighbor, right along our property lines. I waited and waited for the berries to turn from red to plum-colored, checking every day as I picked up our bills, catalogs, and correspondence. One day I saw they would be ready the next day, and got my bowl prepared to pick right after the mail came. When the little white van had turned around and gone back down the hill, I went to the mailbox, only to find our neighbor, transplanted from urban life to coastal dwelling, had sheared the bushes he found lumpy and misshapen into a long, square hedge. I cried.

Then I thought about the greatest huckleberry picker of all, the grand poobah wizard, my grandma. Dad would hear via the huckleberry vine the patches were ready and tell us to be ready bright and early. Grandma would arrive in her Fiat, jump into our Chevy stationwagon, and off we’d go, armed with the picnic lunch Mom had prepared, and our buckets fashioned from old MJB coffee cans or gallon shortening cans. I liked the shortening cans best because the handles were crafted and there were no sharp edges, unlike the MJB cans with their rusty wire handles and sharp tops. We’d start at the top of a hill and bush by bush, slide down. We’d get sticky and sweaty and were plagued by crawling and flying bugs. Still we picked and when we grew tired of picking our grandmother first shamed us by showing us how full her bucket was, reminding us she was an old lady we surely could beat, and then she told us stories of her youth, or sang songs she’d grown up with. The latter always encouraged us to pick faster as she did not carry a tune as well as her bucket. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, our mouths were purple and our buckets full.

Picking my own blueberries now, I thought of those huckleberry picking days, quietly sang a few lines from her songs, and before I knew it, I had my bowl full of berries ready to be processed.

Lots of us grew up in gardens or the outdoors and that’s why we are there now as adults; that’s why we encourage our kids and grandchildren, and heck, everyone we know, to get out in the garden, out in Nature herself, with others. That’s where the best learning, bonding, and wonderful fond memories occur.

 

THE LOVE TOUR

THE LOVE TOUR

January is a most depressing month, and February follows right on its heels. Here on the coast everything is dripping wet, soggy and marshlike. The prominent color of the sky is some variation of Payne’s gray, from “dark ominous” to “continual dusk” to “shiny steel.” Lest you think growing things are all dead, though, when you see brown, slime, and mold, I’m here to tell you plenty is going on underneath the leaves, twigs, branches and mulch. Even if it’s spitting rain, I suggest you take a hopeful walk around your garden. Make what I call the Love Tour.

Today, I asked myself, “What can I see that I love?” I started out from the front door, where our porch is decorated with primroses my husband bought at the store, with the joy of their color in mind. We love seeing them every time we go in or out of our home. We didn’t grow them, but I think they count anyway.

Next, I noticed all the nubbins—bulbs arising in either sidewalk bed. Some early daffodils are ready to bloom, but the later bulbs are slowly undressing. Besides daffodils, I saw the arms of narcissus, crocus, snowbells, hyacinth, muscari, tulips and Scilla siberica, all reaching for the light.

Around the corner, two clumps of heather are in bloom. I love the happy pinks. If I clip some stems, they fit perfectly in a teeny blue glass vase and will dry and retain their color for a couple of months on a counter or table.

Some yarrow is greening, promising its work as a bouquet filler and a medicinal in herbal concoctions. The rose campion and foxglove rosettes haven’t frozen and neither has the hollyhock, which means we may have their colorful blooms earlier than usual. I love that!

The rosemary is green and blooming. I squeeze and rub the leaves and smell my hand. Heavenly!

Green ferns are out of the ground. So is the German chamomile. More green.

The red-twigged dogwood pops color where there are no blooms. I saw buds on the lilacs, forsythia, flowering quince, and pussy willow. I love seeing their promise!

Without leaves blocking the view, I noticed the structural elements I put in place last summer, such as the graveled patio space I dug and laid for the red table and chairs, and the paving stone foundation for the red bench. I love that it’s all ready when the time comes. I also made a list of the places that need work and the pruning that needs done as soon as the weather is more forgiving, because right now they are more noticeable.

After my circuit of our house through the flower beds, looking for things I love, I reached my front porch in a much happier frame of mind, grateful for nature and my connection to it. We can’t always get away to sunnier climes, but we can always take ten minutes out of our day to make the Love Tour. I recommend it.

Home Grown Thanksgiving

Bountiful Table

Bountiful Table

As my family—my sister, my mother, and my husband–made way to eat Thanksgiving dinner, my sister Anita surveyed the table and said, “Wow! Just look. Most of everything here we either grew, canned, or froze. That’s awesome!”

And true. She grew the potatoes she mashed and the green beans. She grew the butternut squash she candied. She didn’t make the marshmallows, but maybe next year. The turkey and gravy were not grown by us, it’s true. However, when I was in the 7th grade, my mother grew turkeys on our farm, so that year, we could definitely say we grew the turkey we ate. That was the only year we could say that, though, because the turkeys were so stupid and time-consuming they about did my mother in, so she went on to focus on chickens, who at least have a brain.

The gravy came from McCormick’s, gluten-free, and we hadn’t grown the kinds of plants used to assemble the gravy mix. Give my sister time, okay?

The anti-pasto plate was yummy and due to our joint summertime efforts. My sister grew the cucumbers she pickled. We grew the green beans, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers and peppers for the vegetable mixture I pickled. The apples I wedged and candied came from our apple trees. My sister grew the beets she pickled. The olives, bless their finger-tipping hearts, my sister withdrew from a can she opened and drained. She could have planted an olive tree, picked and preserved her own olives, mind you, but alas, she’s allergic to olive trees.

All of us have grown the carrots, cauliflower, and cucumber sticks on the appetizer plate.

My sister grew the loganberries, blackberries, raspberries, and marionberries in the berry delight for dessert. She bought the ice cream, but in the past we’ve milked the cow, separated the milk, and churned the ice cream. My sister Susie still makes ice cream the good, old-fashioned way, by hand. It’s one reason I will drive eight hours to visit her in the summer.

At the head of the table sat the major reason my sisters and I know how to do all this—our mother. Looking at our well-provisioned table, we were all grateful for what our parents passed on to us.

Growing up, my siblings and I learned from our father and mother how to grow, can, and preserve. My husband learned from his parents as well. I say we were lucky to have grown up in rural areas where people could live off the land and have the foresight to teach their offspring how to do the same. My sisters and I have never forgotten the lessons we learned and when we are able, we provide for ourselves. It warms my heart that many of my young friends are discovering anew these skills, if not from their elders, then from 4-H classes, the Extension Service, and from each other. They are making sure their children learn the skills as well, especially since many schools have opted out of teaching the home skills.

Self-sufficiency feels good, especially when you know that what you’ve grown is organic, without harmful chemicals, and truly tasty. Besides, you’ve kept in better shape working for it! Our whole neighborhood shares produce, techniques, recipes, and canned goods. Nothing better than that!

This Thanksgiving, among other things, I was grateful for the bounty at our table, the family members seated around it, especially our mother, and for the lessons we’ve learned and put into action.