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Is it just me, or is this early summer so many of us in the northern hemisphere seem to be experiencing proceeding at an accelerated rate? The yellow has quickly faded from my garden; the daffodils are already gone, the forsythia is dropping the last of its petals today, and the Jasmine (or yellow bells as some of my NC neighbors call it) bloomed way back at New Years, was nipped by frost, and is gone. The tulips are abundant this week, but will surely be gone by Easter. Last week I noticed the swelling buds in the crab apple that towers above the raspberry patch and thought “that’ll be beautiful for our Easter Egg hunt in two weekends.” Yesterday it was in full bloom, and today the pink petals are already drifting slowly down. They’ll probably be gone by the end of the weekend. Same with the azalea by the back door. I thought it would be brilliant with color in a week or two, but it’s opening now. Hopefully it’ll still be in bloom in two weeks.
Maybe I just feel I’m missing things because I’m cooped up with a broken toe that’s making it surprisingly uncomfortable to take care of garden chores? Working indoors and hearing the birdsong and seeing the glorious days that are in it is not any sort of substitute to being out there getting the hands dirty, planting, pruning, and doing all the other small tasks that become pleasure when accompanied by the constant buzzing of the bees, quick flits of birds scoring nest-building materials or nabbing a careless worm from a freshly watered vege bed (or maybe the pleasure lies in the absence of a clicking keyboard and the ping of incoming emails?). For extra comedy value, our cat is now sporting a cast on his leg after somehow dislocating his ankle a few days ago. (My suspicion is he pursued one of his mortal-enemy squirrels up a tree and landed awkwardly afterwards.) Now he’s cooped up in the bathroom so he doesn’t make the injury worse trying to be his usual big bad self. At least we’re company in our mutual grumpiness.
While I’m less mobile, I’ve been reading about the early burial practices of the megalithic tombs builders in Ireland, and learning about what they considered precious objects to inhume with the ashes of their dead: very practical things (pestle stones, bone pins, and pottery jars). I’ve also been gardening vicariously through some wonderful blogs (Arigna Gardener and A Place in the Country are top-notch), and picking away at the plot holes of my novel-in-progress. (Lest you think I am able to amuse myself all the time, I will comment that my day job has also been fairly intense lately. There’s a stack of new manuscripts to read for the books we’re publishing in the fall, marketing copy to write, and I’ve been finalizing summer events for our authors up and down the country.)
Actually, it occurs to me that my work may also be contributing to this sense that things are progressing very quickly this year. Working in publishing is a slightly disorienting experience because we work on books that won’t come out for 6-9 months, and by the time they’re arriving on bookstore shelves, we’ve shifted our focus to the next batch another 6-7 months hence. Right now I’m planning events for this October and November, and have actually pitched several things for summer 2013. No wonder time seems to be slipping by at a fast clip.
Maybe that’s why I relax through gardening? It grounds me in the now, in the dirt. Does this plant need water? Do I need to weed, fertilize, mulch, or divide? What’s ready to pick today? All this resting, icing and elevating my foot is keeping me indoors too much, and I’m feeling a little out of touch with the now. Maybe the solution is simply to take one of those manuscripts out into the sun and find a good spot to get some work done?
‘Tis the season to scratch your head and wonder “What the Hell is that?” Seriously, I look to see if the peonies are coming up yet (they are) and some interesting looking red stem with palm-like leaves (mystery plant #1, below) is coming up right beside it. At first I thought it was another peony, but now that both are getting taller I can see they’re completely different structurally. The peonies are much thicker and greener, the mystery plant is very thin and bright red.
It’s like this all over the garden. Plants I know, plants I can put a name to and remember when I planted them, are right where they should be (if a little early — thank you unseasonably warm weather), and weird, random things are sprouting alongside.
If anyone recognizes any of these volunteers, please leave an ID or guess in the comments. If not, I’ll post more pix in a month or so when we’ll have more growth and maybe some blooms.
Mystery plant #2 seems way too small to be wild primrose, which seems to grow to about 4-5 feet around here, although the leaves look similar. It over-wintered as a very small plant, then put on a quick burst of growth and bloomed a few days ago. Could easily be a seed dropped by a bird, or something blown in from a neighbor?
Mystery plant #3 is tiny so far, but growing rapidly in full sun. It could be something that hitched a ride in the compost I put down in this area (which came from a cold pile, so some seeds may not have been killed off — a pepper, maybe?) or a refugee from some unsuccessful pack of seeds. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell what’s deliberately planted and what isn’t because some seeds take such a long time to germinate. Right now there are columbine coming up all over the place because I planted seeds two years ago, and nothing came up last year. I planted some again, and I suspect the seedlings that I’m seeing now are the result of the first batch of seeds.
Mystery plant #4 looks like a lettuce right now, but I know it isn’t. I’m pretty sure this was part of some pack of seeds my kids brought home from a birthday party a couple of years ago. It was the only species of flower from that pack (“native wildflowers” or “butterfly garden” or some such) that grew to maturity last year, and produced mid-size pink flowers (with just a couple of large petals) on 8-10 inch stems. A member of the poppy family, maybe? It sees to have overwintered just fine, and these cool little green leaves speckled with pink/ruby spots are interesting. It’s growing in full sun, if that helps.
While it’s gratifying to see plants you put hard work into nurturing, feeding and weeding come back every year, part of the fun is also in the unexpected chaos of the garden. The plant that decides not to bloom one year and flourishes the next, the unexpected guest that hitches a ride in that clump of daylilies you harvested from an overgrown roadside, and the mysterious volunteer that sprouts from something borne on the wind all add an element of surprise and delight to even the most carefully planned garden.
Some of these mystery plants will likely be keepers, others doubtless invasive weeds. Any guesses or confident plant IDs would be appreciated.
The first daffodil (surrounded by emerging campanula).More campanula erupting around the crocus.First phlox bloom.And, a volunteer I think might be speedwell. [Note: the larger scalloped leaves in the center belong to an althea zabrina which went rogue.]
The last two (frost-free!) weeks have seen the emergence of many, many perennials, and the first few blooms. As the squirrels search everywhere for their hidden nuts, they scamper through a tall forest of daffodil leaves and thick clumps of the darker green star of Bethlehem. They’ve been digging all around the trefoil leaves of my new trillium, but thankfully seem disinterested in it.
While the first few spots of color are welcome after the winter, the real beauty in the garden at this time of year lies in the tiny, perfect shapes of the emerging perennials. The minute pale green scalloped leaves of the columbine push through the mulch assertively, while the sharp-toothed heads of the gladioli slice through the dirt like knives. The couple of small campanula plants I put in last summer have been busy spreading their roots throughout the surrounding beds, and tiny new plants are erupting all over the place. As these plants didn’t flower last year, I hope they’re going to put on a show this summer.
All in all, it’s an exciting time in the garden, the first hints that all the work that goes into maintaining it is going to pay off yet again. Going by all the leaves emerging, I’m hoping we might have a very good year for tulips (due to careful dividing and transplanting over the past two years) and my rather bare, ugly front beds might actually approach the sea of tall blooms I envisioned over the last two years when I planted dozens of tall plants (gladioli, iris, peony, foxglove, hollyhock, lily, poppy, and delphiniums). I was afraid most of these had died over the winter, but now I see new shoots emerging from the brown husks of some of the hollyhocks and foxgloves, so they might be more resilient than I thought.
Fingers crossed we’re spared a prolonged arctic blast to stunt or kill all this budding lushness.
Meet Rory, our new garden helper. He’s very good at picking up sticks, applying fertilizer (except, not the kind you want in your vegetable beds) and scaring the birds away. Does not appear to have a green thumb (or any kind of thumb, really), but he’s photogenic, so you’ll be seeing a lot more of him.
I discovered that garden bloggers have a tradition of posting pics of whatever’s blooming in their gardens on the 15th of each month. So, as a wanna-be garden blogger, here’s my contribution. Our garden is in Asheville, NC, on the south-facing side of a mountain ridge.
The official first bloom of the year was a stunted dandelion my younger daughter found a few weeks ago. However, last week, the first desired bloom arrived: jasmine. Which sort of jasmine it is, I don’t know — it predates me on this property. It has a nice sheltered spot on the sunny south-facing bank along the road, so it usually blooms comparatively early.
Coincidentally, today was the first day a crocuses bloomed. Typically, just like buses, I’d been waiting a week since the little green leaves first stuck their needles out of the ground a week ago, just to tantalize me, and then three of them bloomed at the same time this morning. Judging from the multiple flower spikes visible in the first picture, there should be a crowd joining these débutantes tomorrow.
Every year I bring the picking pots into my office (which has three walls of windows) and consolidate the remaining annuals and a few perennials into them. They keep my office bright and cheerful even through the dullest parts of winter. These geraniums and petunias are evidently feeling their own version of spring fever right now, as they’re blooming brightly in response to the more-abundant sunshine.
What this intrepid shoot will become I have no idea. It’s growing wild along the roadside, beneath the jasmine. I only noticed it last week when I cut a nearby tree down. I’ll keep an eye on it and see what it turns into. If it’s pretty, I’ll move it somewhere more prominent and share it on a future Bloom Day.
Some great garden blogs:
The fab May Dreams Garden blog, where I believe this whole Garden Bloom Day thing originated.
Growing a Garden in Davis, another good garden blog, albeit one very far from my NC garden.
And another lit-blog/garden-blog hybrid like mine, Vicki Lane’s Mysteries.
I spent almost the entire past weekend working in the yard: raking leaves, spreading compost on vegetable beds, chopping and stacking wood, and piling hedge trimmings by the side of the road for the city brush collection to haul away. (Inspired by the excellent WNC garden blog Outside Clyde, I’ve been trying to let my pictures do the talking lately. But, none of this weekend’s yard chores were particularly photogenic.) My hands are now cut to shreds. I usually start the day wearing gardening gloves, but gardening is a tactile pursuit, so at some point I’ll want to test the soil between my fingers or relocate a few shallowly planted bulbs, or brush the clay from a cool-looking rock, so I take them off and promptly forget about them for the rest of the day.
I think of these days of small, but never-ending, yard chores like editing a piece of writing. Futzing with punctuation, swapping one word for another, splitting unruly sentences into smaller, more attractive ones, and reordering paragraphs, all have their equivalents in the garden that may be invisible to others – except for an overall something, a readiness, a utility, a sense of order that says, this garden is well-tended. I doubt anyone but another gardener would notice that my vegetable beds now have a couple of inches of rich, black compost on top – spread out so that a couple of weeks’ frost can kill off any rogue seeds that lay safe and warm in the center of the compost pile all winter. However, they might notice the satisfyingly dark color of the soil, or the fact that the dirt in these beds now comes pleasingly almost to the top of the wooden frame – all winter it has languished unhappily several inches short of the top, leaving an impression of exhaustion and lethargy.
In a few weeks, I’ll add some peat moss or soil conditioner, sift the soil, remove any stray pine cones, insufficiently composted carrots, or forgotten acorns, and the raised beds might (at least in my mind’s eye) resemble a perfect sponge cake, fresh from the oven — the loose, rich, dark soil mounding up slightly above the top of the timbers, threatening to spill over with nutrients and excitement for spring. To anyone else, it’ll still just be several beds of dirt, but maybe beds that give off an impression of readiness, of potential. This editing process will — and just like in a good piece of writing, should — be invisible: the days of weeding, turning, sifting, enriching, and turning again, are only noticeable when they haven’t happened.
When I was looking through some old photos recently, I found one of the front of our house the day we first came to view it. Apart from the temporary absence of any hanging baskets, it still looks pretty much the same, except there was no big junk cherry tree growing by the road five years ago. (I think the cherry is the tallest green mass obscuring the front door in the 2005 picture above.) The picture from the Christmas snowmageddon of 2009 only shows the bottom right quarter of the tree, but indicates how tall it had become in four years. I realized this volunteer non-flowering cherry had grown to about 25-30 feet over a few years. It had a double trunk, which weakens the tree as it grows, and was growing on a slope, so had developed a slight lean to one side. This was not a tree to let grow into ripe old age. It was time to chop it down.Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take any photos before, so imagine the left side as full as the right in the shot above taken early in the process (I’d already topped the left side and removed one of the split trunks) and you’ll have a good idea of how big the thing was getting. The picture does not do justice to the thickness of the trucks.
Another angle shows one of the hazards I had to contend with, as the top branches were tall enough to catch on the utility lines if they fell the wrong way (in descending order: power, phone and cable). I lopped the horizontal branches off first, then started cutting the four trucks down in roughly 5-8 foot sections.
I left this much trunk because I was running out of steam. I don’t have a chainsaw, and sawing through thick branches when you’re up a ladder takes it out of you. The kids and I are considering leaving it in the ground and carving a little totem pole.
Some of the pruned branches beside the other hazard I had to deal with: our mailbox. I just repaired the post after a city garbage truck snapped it, so I didn’t want to drop a 50 lb branch on it and have to fix it again.
I have a newfound respect for old-school lumberjacks now. Sawing logs isn’t so difficult down on the ground, but clambering around up in a tree and cutting branches by hand is a different matter.
We have one other junk cherry on the property, thankfully just a couple of years old, and half the size. I think it’s next for the chop, and then we’ll have to decide what to plant in their place. I’m leaning towards crepe myrtles, which are fast growing and tall, but never get big and heavy.
On Sunday, I saw that we hopefully had three days (and nights) above freezing on the way, so I got busy and planted some native wildflowers in the shady part of the garden this weekend. (I found them at Lowes, of all places! Good on ya, Lowes.) The trillium, trout lily, and jack-in-the-pulpit are now well watered and safely ensconced beneath 3-4 inches of dirt & leaf mold, and I added a bleeding heart nearby (because the cats tend to frolic in and out of the daylilies around the other one, which usually shortens its blooming season/survival, as the stems are too soft to withstand two cats playing an energetic game of hide-and-pounce).
Attentive gardeners among you will wonder why daylilies (who love sun) and bleeding heart (which prefers shade) are doing in the same bed. The answer is the daylilies were there long before I arrived on the scene. I only discovered that they might be better suited to a south-facing bed recently, so I’ll likely divide them and move half elsewhere when the temps are consistently above freezing. They do bloom beautifully where they already are, albeit a little late.
It’s always curious what you find when you’re clearing neglected corners of a garden or digging someplace for the first time. I found an old, broken birdhouse (painted in gaudy colors like a gypsy caravan by one of my kids many years ago) under leaves in the middle of the hedge, the head of an old claw hammer under years of deadfall and leaf mulch, and a round metal object under several of inches of dirt and pine needles. I think it may have been an ornamental garden sunburst at some point. If so, this would be the first sign of garden whimsy we’ve found from the original owners who built the house in the 1920s.
Being immersed in a novel-in-progress about the Celts, I imagined just for a moment that this might be an ancient Celtic shield I was pulling from the earth, buried since falling from the hand of some slain warrior. The “claw hammer” I found nearby might be an insignificant cousin to a mighty war hammer, but now my shady corner of a North Carolina mountainside feels symbolically linked to the central European hillsides and Irish glens of 2000 years ago. The sun and the seasons were very important to Celtic spiritual life, and perhaps only gardeners and farmers can still appreciate just how vital and worthy of worship the sun is. So, of all the things I could have dug up in my garden, I think a metal sunburst/shield is one of the most symbolic/appropriate for at least two of my consuming interests.
I realized today that I now have four compost piles on the go. One is a heavy, black plastic earth machine for the food scraps (have to keep the critters out). The others are large, open-sided compost piles for yard clippings and leaves, of various ages and levels of decomposition. This year I took quite a bit of good compost from one (the oldest, going for four years), and I anticipate clearing out nearly two of the others in the spring to deepen the raised beds. I don’t know if having this many compost piles on the go is the right way to go about it, or a dilution of energy, but we have so many leaves in the fall and so much yard clippings, that I hate to see them go to waste. I’m a horder of tools, household gadgets, and computer equipment because those things always seem to come in handy later, and I guess my ever-growing compost piles are just another form of my storing things that I’ll likely use later.
As usual, while I’m puttering in the garden I’m also thinking about the writing project I’m working on. The compost pile and the capacious attic seem like equivalents to the many journals and writing notebooks I’ve kept over the years. I’ve captured things I’ve seen or done, recorded experiences or events, often with no idea why I was writing them down at the time. Some have ended up incorporated into something else I was writing, or continue to come back to me and provide impetus or ideas for something I know I want to write, but just haven’t twigged the right approach for yet. These ideas/observations/memories get stored on paper in journals, stirred up every now and then so that I remember they’re there, and occasionally I am able to dip into the notebooks and enrich something I’m writing with the rich compost of ideas and experiences that’s built up while I wasn’t looking.