Sunday, May 30, 2010

Color in the Garden: Silver (Foxes)

Many women seem to find men with salt and pepper hair attractive. I believe they are called "Silver Foxes." I have two colleagues, both of whom are exceptionally attractive even without the sprinkling of white and gray, who turn women's heads. I learned that some (now former) students even texted each other when the elder of the two silver foxes would enter the coffee shop. "Silver Fox arrvd." No studying was done on those days. Eye candy supersedes intellectual treats. 

Silver has something of the same effect in the garden. If my gardens passed through their early spring blue phase, they now experience their yellow phase. Sedum ellacombanium and Corydalis lutea display their glory, which only accentuates the yellow pigmentation in the chartreuse Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny), which itself has produced diminutive butter cup-like flowers. The eye needs a rest, and to rest it comes especially at the east/southeast entry to the front garden.

There, I have planted the Helene von Stein varietal of Lamb's Ear--a much more compact and heartier version that the usual type, which sends up scraggly flowers and looks worn by mid-summer. On the other side of the walkway is a Provence Lavender which, though not silver, has enough of the blue-grey in its green to complement the lovely Helene. Each day I see Ms. von Stein I am reminded of another Helene in my life, the inimitable artist from Denver, and her elegant, erudite partner Joanne. I own one original Orr, a water color of a majestic tree painted in glorious autumn golds shrouded by a midnight blue sky. Joanne salvaged it from a pile and offered it to me; Helene balked in the way all artists do at some perceived imperfection, but eventually acquiesced and signed the back "To Matt and Viet: Do with it what you will. Love, Helene." Quintessential Helene, to be sure: Pithy. Affectionate. Utterly inimitable. And for the record: if there is some imperfection in this particular piece, which I have assigned a most prominent wall-space in the house (directly across the front door so that it is the first thing a visitor sees) then it is perfectly imperfect.

As usual, I digress.

In honor of the 27 May Full Flower Moon, a.k.a. the Milk Moon, I purchased a Glacier Blue Euphorbia, and planted it in the spot where my English lavender once stood. Peering through the legginess of Verbena bonariensis (a.k.a. Purpletop or Tall Verbena) and the Provence lavender, one can see a clear axis of silver to Helene von Stein, linking parts of the garden.

From another angle, the silver of Glacier Blue connects to the white of the variegated Siberian iris. Silver soothes, gives the eyes a rest, as the yellow season peaks in 410's front sun garden.

I transplanted the Feverfew yesterday, which underscores the silver patches in the garden and connects the white in the Glacier Blue Euphorbia with the variegated Siberian iris. Together, they form a formidable triumvirate, its center punctuated by the lighter hues of the anvil-like rock.

As in ordinary life, the eye surveys the landscape and invariably comes to rest on the understatedly spectacular. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the silver fox arrests all. If silver is the essence of glamour, if silver is the color of sophistication, then silver may very well also be the lingua franca of attraction.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Formal Declaration of War

The age of Obama was supposed to usher in an era of cooperation and hope, a repudiation of Bush Administration policies and assertive (aggressive?) policy. And yet my inner Bush has formally declared war on the vile little slug.

For weeks, I’ve been conducting a low intensity battle on the slimy creature, but a stroll at dusk the other evening to survey (and dust off) the ramparts shocked this reigning monarch (please, folks, keep the “queen” comments to a minimum!) into launching a massive offensive to save his kingdom. (My inner Realist and my inner Liberal rejoice: for in battle I affirm an instinct of self-defense, enact that putative law “the strong do what they can, while the weak do what they must,” and manifest my predilection for a particular kind of rule—and do all that I can do to ensure my preferred governance remains unmolested.) Sprinkling pounds of poisoned food pellets between rainfalls (especially around the hostas) has been effective at killing off the first assault of springtime slugs; ground warfare has been of a guerilla sort, and while a few slugs manage to resist the temptation of delicious “mollusk-cidal” caviar, most have fortunately succumbed to the law of delicious desire.

Yet the other evening the second, massive wave of astonishingly plump slugs slimed their ways across the leaves of the Sum and Substance hosta—the largest, tallest, and thus perhaps most visible of the hostas. I panicked. With my bare hands I plucked tens and tens of slugs from the leaves, deposited them on the stone walls, and smeared them with my sandals. Smearing the slug is necessary because slugs can self-amputate and survive a predator’s assault. Killing must be swift, and it must be totalizing; nothing but a smudge must remain.

As further evidence of my brutality, I’ve decided not to dignify the slug’s existence by posting a photograph of it. Instead, I opt to exhibit some of the slug’s damage: I under-planted the June Plantain hosta with this Dead Spotted Nettle, the leaves of which show some slug damage (notice the [thankfully minor] hail damage on the hosta leaves). A former, now deceased, acquaintance from Houston, Wynn, possessed a peculiar fascination with the slug, and even painted at least one mammoth portrait of it. Clearly, he did not have a garden, nor did he ever garden—else he wouldn’t celebrate this destructive creature. Wynn would no doubt protest my cruelty, and actively campaign against my methods.

But deploy various, sometimes lethal methods we must, else the fruits of our labors vanish with exacting precision, rendering once lush leaves to lacey Swiss cheese appearance. If groundcover, as I previously concluded, is "the perfect proxy for measuring the certitude of one's will," then decimating the slug population (decimation is about all we can hope for given their hermaphroditic orgies and, consequently, exponential reproduction rates) is the first major test of our established certitude. 

I am happy to report that I annihilate without regret, and indeed find satisfaction in every slug I smear across the walkway.  

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On Transplanting

You survey the landscape before you. A rush of thoughts and emotions briefly overcome you but are impeded by the enormity of the task ahead. And then you make the proverbial plunge and begin doing.

The shovel pierces the soil and quickly descends with muffled snaps as the foot drives it deeper into the ground to blade height. The boxes open and you begin to place your life collections in them. You methodically encircle the plant, creating a moat of sorts—not a divide to be bridged as by marauding forces attempting a storming of the citadel, but a divide of permanent separation. You pack and realize that the empty spaces of moats now become the constructed spaces of cardboard walls—and the effect of permanent separation is the same. The soil has been disturbed, though hopefully not the roots, and you lift the plant above the ground. Your roots have been disturbed, especially the more you lift yourself out of your habitat. Next, you go quickly about your business so as to minimize shock: dividing the plant by slicing through the roots, or moving the specimen entirely to a new space for aesthetic or pragmatic reasons, moving back home or re-arranging furniture in your new apartment, awaiting for your new life, your new schedule, to begin.

I haven’t the energy to veil the real subject matter of this entry, or write with wit or humor. The fact of the matter is that I am verklempt, and thus nearly paralyzed in several ways. After teaching at the University of Denver for 4 years, I moved to Delaware. This is the end of my 4th year at UD, and it corresponds to the graduation of “my” incoming class. “My class.” My groupies, as several colleagues and Viet have called them, are leaving. They have outgrown their spaces; their proverbial roots have absorbed every possible nutrient available to them in this academic environment, and thus yearn to spread further. Packing their boxes, donning their caps and gowns—well, these are their equivalent of transplantation.

Sure, the system is shocked. Even those with post-graduation plans report their angst and that ineffable feeling that comes with departing a life that they have created. And this is significant, as this university life is their first foray into adulthood: simultaneously, they are quasi-dependent (on parents and the structure of the university), and quasi-independent (making certain choices, learning to schedule and take control). There must be shock, as well as pride and happiness, and inevitable sadness.

Last night, I met several of my graduating seniors, my acquaintances and “becoming-friends,” and upon departing the gathering the sheer enormity of their departure struck me. Adam and Laura let me hang on for a little longer than usual. And then Laura advised me to spend time in the garden, which is what I did and plan on doing today (to transplant and tend). Work must wait until I recover from my own shock.

This year’s graduation also obtains particular poignancy on another level. I learned a few days ago of the sudden, tragic death of a beloved former student, Briana Conklin. I adored her, and will always adore her. She was brilliant—but never in a pedantic sort of way. Her witty, caustic sense of humor brought us closer together. She was just appointed District Attorney in Denver, and thus had a promising career ahead of her. Life happens to all of us—occasionally in unexpected ways. Death, insofar as it ends life, is very much a part of it (even if we insist on speaking of life and death in antonymic ways). Death may thus teach us the value of life, and may compel an appreciation (even for life’s vicissitudes) in unimaginable ways. But the cost of appreciation and the cost of care is the inflated sadness that results from passing, from transplantation. Yet I cannot imagine ever conserving appreciation to avoid the costs of my investments.

So I learn something from my own life. Transplanted specimens in the gardening world require extra care in the weeks after being severed from a prior life: extra water, extra nutrients, as much shelter from the harsher elements as possible. And so it is with people. Care rewards us in ways that always outstrip the investment. And we are all the better for it, even as we mourn our losses.

Yet mortality proves a Janus-faced gift: for at one almost inappreciable, unexpected moment somewhere in the depths of confronting the transience and fickleness of life, when sabi infuses our very Being, we apprehend both the magnitude of life and [passing], able to look ahead to the pregnant future, armed with the knowledge and the memories born from the past. This is wabi.

** In memory of Briana Conklin **

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Anything Goes"

My friend Melinda took me to a stripper bar recently—though I am convinced that the strippers were actually drag queens. How could they not be, with names like Rose Campion and Anise Hyssop? Don’t let Anise’s redolent scent fool you: she (he?) isn’t part of the staid Licorice family but rather of the saucier mint family. Anise—sometimes s/he likes to be called Hyssop, which sounds quite slutty in and of itself—must be a drag queen, going out of her way as s/he does to fool the wayward observer with her leggy square stems and olfactory emissions.

To be sure, her name gives her history away. The Lamiaceae family is itself quite respectable, and has given us such aristocratic, venerable personalities as sage and oregano, and the prissier, prudish lavender. But every celebrated family has its skeletons, and Hyssop counts as such: s/he hails from the Agastache clan (genus), the name of which derives from the Greek aga, meaning “very much,” and stachys, meaning “spiky” or as some render it, “like stalks of wheat.” Leggy, indeed! (And even more promiscuous!)

But Hyssop has a secret life (don’t all drag queens or strippers?!), which, sociologically speaking, may be the reason why the Lamiaceaes have not expelled its prodigal child: it is the sacral herb used in ancient Judaic purification rituals. Exodus 12:22 lays it out: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood [of the Passover offering] … and apply some of that blood … to the lintel and to the two doorposts.” The clincher for me follows: “And don’t go outside the door of this house until morning!” Why, I ask? So the blood doesn’t drip on your head? I’d much rather post a mezuzah; it’s so much easier, and not as messy. We moderns have it easy.

Of course, this raises a question: how could a harlot like Hyssop be so integral to observant religious life?

In any case, Melinda’s trip was an imaginary one, and she had me howling with the kinds of things she thought and wrote (this blog entry is as much her invention as it is mine). The stripper bar is the garden, and several plants reveal themselves to be quite addicted to the promiscuous life.

Take Corydalis lutea, for instance. Like Rose and Hyssop, she has a reputation. I’ve been warned about her wily ways, but last year’s experience with her proved to be less than exhilarating. If the rumors titillated, then the reality deflated; apparently, Corydalis intuited that her advances would have been wasted on me. This spring, both plants have offered appreciable displays. I even bought her cousin for the shade garden, Corydalis flexuousa “Blue Panda,” yet he, to my chagrin, is not known for his casual sexual proclivities and thus has snubbed my own shameless flirtations.

Yet no offspring populated the garden. Until a few weeks ago. Suddenly, manifestations of her nighttime activities proliferate the opposite side of the garden, in the corner where the stairwell meets the front porch (hence the detritus in the photo, where the wind loses velocity and deposits its loot—and all an exhibition of my laziness). And yesterday morning, after two cool, rainy days, another child appeared at the base of the stairwell. Her productivity astounds!

I could pluck these little children, or let them grow. I’ve settled on the latter, at least until they threaten to overpopulate the garden. For now, they add a bit of charm, and a Cole Porter dose of cavalier sexuality to the garden.

Written in honor of my venerable gardener friend, Melinda

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rethinking Torture

Anyone who treats gardening as a vocation—not as a hobby, an afternoon or weekend activity, but as a calling—knows that to sit and observe the product of our toil (a toil to create that urban oasis or backyard retreat, a meditative space or a romantic cottage garden) is akin to torture. A visual survey invariably spies an errant weed, a necessary pruning, a specious arrangement, a fallen twig, a deadening flower, an importunate blight. Yesterday, Viet and I took our afternoon tea on the deck, and though I graded 5 papers (this is the end of the semester), I breathed a sigh of relief that the pile was gradually shrinking, and sat back to enjoy the garden and the breeze. Immediately, the urge to transplant, to plant (poor Guacamole hosta which, thanks to Viet for identifying the perfect spot, finally has a home!), to weed, to think, to rearrange, to paint new proverbial brushstrokes on the verdant canvas awoke within, and the body began moving about. Such is the stuff of gardening; indeed, such is even the joy of gardening!

But there is a particular moment in time when the gardener can utter the word tranquility and, more poignantly, experience it even as the body moves about: at dawn. Each year, as summer approaches, my body experiences an odd celestial alignment, and I awake earlier and earlier. I arose in the blackness of the early morning and went about my business. A steady rain fell, but that did not nor could not stop me. Rather, darkness reigned, so gardening ventures had to be postponed.

After grading a few more papers, answering emails, and reading the news, I wandered about outside. Neighbors slept. All human-produced or related sound was momentarily purged from my small portion of the globe. A light rain occasionally, briefly fell. Droplets of water artistically collected on the delicate leaves of the Lady's Mantle. A euphony beckoned: the black capped chickadee perched on a wire above my head most likely was communicating with its kin, but I only heard a conversation between it and the warbler. And though the mockingbird did exactly what its name suggests, the wrens ignored its impetuous disdain and awarded me with a symphonic colloquy.

Miss Gray Kitty, a sweet, affectionate little girl who neighbors abandoned last fall and who now resides on my front porch, followed me as she does, occasionally meowing to protest that the dahlia received more attention than she.

Big Blue Angel and Lemon Drop hostas greeted me—the latter even eagerly displaying a slug that it wished me to smite; I happily acquiesced. I walked to and fro, being careful to make as little sound as possible.

Tranquility, I opined, is misunderstood. In movement, even in frenetic stirrings, one may experience the most sublime form of tranquility—one not even engendered by sitting in the garden.  At that moment I glanced at the Buddha, and thought, “a good Buddhist I would not make, for I cannot sit still.” And the Buddha, its eyes permanently closed in meditative posture, winked at me. And the chickadee belted a mellifluous tune. I stood upright, feeling at one and at peace with the world, being careful not to disturb the ephemeral serenity of the early morning, and went about my business intent on doing my part to keep torture at bay.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lost in Space

Viet promised me a surprise on 7 May, but there was a catch: I needed to bring with me $100 in cash. Any reasonable person would think this suspicious, but as I do not pretend to be reasonable, I trekked to the ATM after my hair appointment and withdrew my cash. (Note to friends: this trick may not work in the future, so please don’t try it on me.) Being familiar with Viet’s tortured relationship with cardinal directions, I asked if he knew how to get to this undisclosed location (hoping Cheney would not be there…sorry, I couldn’t resist!), and he gleefully announced that he checked Mapquest. We were on our way.

At first I thought he was deliberately trying to disguise the destination by veering down odd side streets, but then it became clear: he was lost. He asked if I knew Rockford Park, and I blurted, “We’re going to the Rockford Park Plant Sale?!”

He tried to deny it of course, but then we had to ask construction workers for directions. Once we arrived, we left the car. He insisted that this was not the plant sale but a Mother’s Day carnival. I was skeptical, but as we ascended the hill (the only one in Delaware?), a Ferris Wheel gradually came into view. An inverse relationship developed: for every increase in elevation, my mood descended into disappointment. To disguise this, I simply reminded him that I had a thesis defense to conduct in 3 hours (which was true).

We crested the hill and I surveyed the landscape: amusement park rides, food booths, tents… and, huh? Plants? One tent for “donor plants,” another for “perennials,” one for herbs, another for vegetables, one for annuals and one for houseplants… The effect, especially after a bout of disappointment, cannot be described: here I was at Wilmington’s celebrated annual ROCKFORD PARK PLANT SALE with $115 in my pocket. This was my orgiastic moment, my immediate future!

I left with $2 in my pocket. Viet knows me well--hence his prescience to limit my available funds.

My purchases, you wonder?

Three Corsican mint plants; two patchouli plants; 2 lemon thyme; 1 lemon grass; 1 Gaura Whirling Butterfly; 1 Guacamole hosta; 1 Ligularia dentate (Britt-Marie Crawford); 1 Hellebore (an unusual, palm and lace leaf style white hellebore); 1 large Lady’s Mantle to replace the two Gramsci generously watered; and one red Japanese maple.

Owing to my insane work schedule of late, I’ve only gradually planted these sources of happiness. A few days ago, the lemon thyme plants found their way in the front garden, and the patchouli in a pot. But the Guacamole hosta remains pot-bound. I can’t figure out where to put it.

So now I experience Viet’s syndrome: being lost in space. If his strain manifests as being directionally challenged, then mine appears in the form of being situationally challenged. Space itself has eluded me. True, the beds are lush this year, but room remains. Somehow, though, Guacamole hosta doesn’t seem to “pop” anywhere I place it. It is a showcase plant—and deserves, like the deep red stemmed and purple-leafed Ligularia Britt-Marie Crawford, to be situated "just-so." 

For now, though, "Guac's" residence in a plastic pot, root-bound, yearning to spread its roots and make nice with its new neighbors, testifies to my inabilities and is a consequence of my aesthetic desire for perfection. But, as Viet cleverly salvaged his surprise from the grips of his “affliction,” (aided no doubt by the presence of carnival rides), Guacamole hosta salvages me from, well, me. She reminds me that all things good are not necessarily all perfect. And we shouldn’t have it any other way.   

Saturday, May 15, 2010

It's Electric

A drenching rain fell upon Wilmington last night, which is good since several days ago I emptied the full rain barrel into several old cat litter buckets to save for, well, a not-so-rainy day. (The rain barrel is, by the way, perhaps the wisest addition to my garden--that and the Mr. Froggie rain gauge!--and I think I shall look into getting another one for the rear of the house.) Neighbors to the south, in Newark, received hail—hours after my friend Claire planted her vegetable garden.

One afternoon in mid-August 2008, two months after I planted the east shade bed with the bounty bestowed upon me by Phyllis (see earlier entry), a ferocious thunderstorm wreaked havoc on Wilmington. Several inches of marble size hail fell. High winds uprooted a massive old tree in Brandywine Park. Our street turned into a massive, raging ice flow, garbage and recycling bins carried away for several blocks. Needless to say, very few plants and trees retained their leaves after such a devastating storm, and the garden never did recover that season. The optimist might say that the storm excused me from having to do my late autumn garden chores and readying the bed for its winter respite.

A different kind of electric storm brews in my sun garden. The Siberian irises—the very clump I “adopted” from 35 Lovett (um, notice how my language has changed in these entries from openly admitted theft to rescue and now to adoption?)—bloomed this year. Combined with the fluorescent fuchsia Rhododendron, the Technicolor display is something out of a Todd Haynes homage to 1950s filmography! And the “big yellow” bearded iris came into full bloom three days ago, just as the pale yellow bearded irises are nearing the end of their bloom time.

And our thunderstorm brought with it a bolt of divine lightning, as the first of at least 14 white Siberian irises bloomed overnight, its bit of yellow nicely echoed by the yellow tubular flowers of the Corydalis, reminding us that the divine is human and the human is divine.

A rivulet of chartreuse Lysimachia (Creeping Jenny) winds its way around Sedum ellacombianun and the Blue Columbine, leading us to the shores of the Creeping Juniper (which, because of my real estate shortage and its expansive needs, I’ve promised to my neighbor), and beyond to the geranium. The effect is exhilarating; when I crouch down at eye level and can’t see beyond the Columbine, I feel a peculiar kind of excitement and anticipation of the unknown—the sort that only travel to a foreign place can elicit—wondering where the rivulet will take me…I picture for a moment a raging Colorado creek, chartreuse water rafters fueled by surges of adrenaline, coming perilously close to hitting those brown leaf boulders in the creek, assiduously trying to avoid being propelled by the force of the Lysimachia into the spears of the juniper.

Standing up, I am brought back to reality, perhaps because of the click of the knee or the twang in my lower back, or perhaps because my eye spies a little weed, or perhaps the sounds of the birds and the breeze on my face, or perhaps because of the sight of peeling paint on the porch deck, or perhaps the realization and the assuredness that this garden is my creation.

The effect is electric.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Weeping (willows)

Gardens evoke a particular kind of nostalgia, one to which I alluded in earlier posts. Each of us seems to have a memory associated with a plant or a garden that arouses even the most impermeable of souls.

When Viet and I arrived at the University of Delaware in late summer, 2006, we lived in University faculty housing at 35 Lovett Avenue. The property was formerly owned by an elderly gentleman who avidly gardened. When we arrived, those gardens were terribly overgrown, and I set to work to correct that. (Viet always questioned why I tended to rental property; ancestral callings, I suppose...).

Both Gwinny, my late princess, and Gramsci, enjoyed the backyard garden. Gwinny basked in the sunlight, while Gramsci explored the new property and its frog pond (on the east side of the house). He loved to lie under the peony bushes--and looked quite regal doing so! On occasion, Gramsci liked to escape the confines of the property and often ventured into the construction site next door, or onto the science part of campus.  One day, emboldened, Gramsci caught a wayward bird in the bushes. Poor little birdy. Viet and I took it the Catholic Church next door, thinking that might save its soul (or at least keep Grasmci from eating it). Its little heart raced; I don't imagine it survived long after we placed it on the ground and left it with apologetic thoughts for what our cat had done. I suppose Gramsci was merely following his own ancestral callings...

Knowing 35 Lovett was slated for demolition (next month to be exact), I "liberated" a few things: pale yellow and pale blue irises; daffodil and paper white bulbs; and a clump of Siberian irises (which finally bloomed!).

Announcements were made that construction of UD's grand, state-of-the-art science facility would begin next month. The faculty living there vacated the premises last week. I planned a late night rescue of the peony bushes, perhaps the aster, a few more bearded and a lot more Siberian irises, and some other bulbs. The wisteria had grown too large, so that would have to stay.

I walked by the property the other day and discovered that the peonies were gone, as was the aster, the azalea, and sundry other things. The imposing Black Walnut tree in the rear had been removed several weeks ago. I had to make my move; tonight or tomorrow night would be my stealth mission. I even arranged with a colleague (the ever gracious Alice) a phone call and a bailout in case I was arrested. Yes, I was quite serious about Operation Siberian Iris.

Viet and I arrived on campus yesterday to discover the property fenced in and the bulldozer in place. The backyard had already disappeared. Later that afternoon, the lovely magnolia tree, which would compel every Asian student at UD to stop and admire its spectacular showing, had been chopped down while I was in class. By the end of the workday, not a single plant, bush, or tree remained. Operation Siberian Iris was aborted.

I feel a pervasive sense of loss as I write this. We did not own 35 Lovett, but tending to the garden beds engendered a sense of pride and an emotional stake in the property's future. Gwinny lived her final months in 35 Lovett, and there suffered a massive stroke on 24 January 2007 which claimed her life after so many months of quietly suffering with renal failure and assorted other health problems. She lived her final months, I am convinced, more for her daddy; Gwinny always took care of me in her unassuming ways, and saw to it that my life was stabilized before she took her leave from this earthly existence. Her death continues to haunt me, as deaths do. The disappearance of 35 Lovett makes her loss all the more palpable, and all the more lived on this day.

And those lovely flowers.... the previous owner was an astute garden designer, for each wave of blooms was followed by an equally sensational display.

If there are any regrets....well, it is that I did not implement Operation Siberian Iris sooner.

Goodbye, 35 Lovett, and goodbye to your lovely gardens, which are now just a memory to be accessed from time to time.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Not many of us wake up to discover that our bodies have undergone a most unusual transformation while we slept, such as from human to insect. But such is imagination, and such is metaphor.

The other morning I awoke to an unexpected, dramatic, and decidedly non-metaphoric metamorphosis: the June Plantain hosta, the leaves of which previously had bright chartreuse centers framed by vibrant, deep lime green borders, suddenly appeared as pale yellow-green centers framed by gray-blue edging. I stood mesmerized by unexpected shades of blue, for the borders perfectly harmonized with the blue of "Blue Angel" hosta, and together, this team of venerable hostas accentuated a particular bluish hue in the Obisidian heuchera that is otherwise, to my eyes, not visible.
But these may be June Plantain’s true colors—and indeed they are, as this particular hosta is known for its pigmentary variation throughout the season. The vivacity of its lime and chartreuse proved the flaunting of youthful spring revelry; with adolescence nearly over, the plant settles into a more mature display of aesthetic restraint. Time in the botanical world is at once compressed and accelerated.

We humans, however, live more measured lives, and we tend to mark time not by colorful refashioning (at least not of the sort about which I’ve been writing) but by wrinkles and increments of ten. Adages like “fifty is the new forty” and “forty is the new thirty” appear in the lexicon of my peers (and slight elders) with increasing frequency; these seem but trifling grasps at passing youth, futile attempts to conceal a fear of reaching another milestone birthday and coming ever closer to the inevitable moment when we shall pass from this earthly plane.

As an educator, I am exposed each day to a curious, sometimes humorous, sometimes painful mix of the tempestuousness of youth and the moderation of age, and to developing selves prepossessed of the need to achieve a balance between the two. And this helps keep me young in a way that disabuses me of resorting to euphemisms and cliché—though fret I continue to do.

These selves require a patience that I often do not think I possess, but in the end learn that I do (if only because my sympathies overwhelm my rational yearnings for discipline and punish, order and responsibility). Like my plants, developing selves require a forbearance and attunement to their particular needs; helping them negotiate those needs with others’ in a preexisting context is part of the metamorphosis from child to adult. And so it is with plants. 

Gardening offers the world to me in microcosm—but not in a controlled laboratory sense, since my plants metamorphose and protest, flourish and proliferate, seemingly without regard to me though perhaps always in reference to something I have or have not done. Instead, my gardens offer me the certitude of my own Being, existing as it does within a context broader and deeper than my individual self. And thus my gardens come to teach me how to allow others to be selves in ways that ensure their continual metamorphosis.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Time after Thyme...

Cyndi Lauper still haunts me on occasion…not in any negative way (memories of skipping over to the Hudson River; “Time after Time,” various Madonna songs, and some Pet Shop Boys for spirited measure mixed in, blaring on my headset; a bright yellow shirt—extra large and therefore billowing in the breeze off my skeletal high school frame notwithstanding), but a mystical kind of haunting that propels me back in time.  Just listen to the lyrics, which evoke a haunting sadness, a haunting by and of time, a haunting by memories.

Most anything I suppose can serve as our particular haunting. We are susceptible, at any given moment, to envelopment by the past, to a haunting by time and its personages and events, whether triggered by a sight, a sound, or, a smell. For Marcel Proust, it was the mixture of tea with the crumbs of a madeleine that unleashed a flood of memories—the result being his monumental autobiographical work, À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU (Remembrance of Things Past).

"I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal…And suddenly the memory revealed itself: The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane."

To be overcome, to intuit, to feel the rush of time within one’s body…well, these are the unexpected pleasures of life. We cannot will such moments into existence; they simple come.  

Plants evoke their own kind of haunting, and, it seems to me, so many memories are constructed around the botanical. Recently, for instance, I excitedly showcased my new Carolina Allspice bush (Calycanthus floridus) to our neighborly and eminently gracious postal carrier, Karen. No sooner did I speak its name when time suddenly haunted her. She began to speak excitedly about the times she, as a child, would spend at her grandmother's house. A large Carolina Allspice dominated the backyard, and she would dance around it and use it for hide and seek shelter. 

Likewise, my Aunt Annie and cousin Arianna wax eloquently about the sprawling iris beds my Grandfather Weinert cultivated at his upstate New York home. Ancestral callings, I suppose; I’ve become addicted to irises, though unlike many addictions, only certain kinds of irises satisfy my desires.

Yet one plant in particular serves as the key to an inestimable moment in time: the scent of thyme always hurtles me back to 1987. On 21 June (my Grandmother Weinert's birthday who, in the same year, succumbed to brain cancer), my dear high school friend Nikki Quay died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Her family held a private funeral several days later. But at the funeral home prior to the graveside service, Nikki’s parents asked a few of Nikki’s close friends to attend. We gathered at the plot in a cemetery surrounded by lovely woods. And the scent of sweet, wild thyme wafted around us mourners, bereft, clutching each other, trembling, weeping, feeling as if the world had come to an end—because a part of it had. Thyme has since been my most poignant madeleine; its scent transports me decades back, and I feel for a moment a consuming grief, which quickly gives way to a deep appreciation for Nikki’s presence in my life, and then a smile…and then a delicious new dish.   

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fresh Thymes

Each day in the garden is a vastly different experience, especially at this stage in the growing season. The leaves of my beloved Petasites—Giant Butterbur (we have a more intimate relationship now, so I can drop his species, japonicas)—each day grow more engorged, shading the Christmas fern and the Liberty hosta, the catnip (which reminds me; I need to move it as Butterbur has blocked whatever few rays of sun it had), and the base of the Asian Fairy Bells (Disporum flavens). It shades the rear-garden walkway and fills space. Disporum has passed its bloom time, and, in the front garden, the creeping phlox winds down its glamorous display of lustrous lavender.

New flowers appear: the yellow flower of Argentina anserina, a.k.a. Silver Cinquefoil or Silverweed, has appeared, just in time to complement the last run of Ornithogalum umbellatum, a.k.a. Star of Bethlehem, its yellow stamens set against the stark divine white of its petals. The neighbor’s rhododendron, which cascades over the original (91 year old) wrought iron fence, has bloomed, and the front garden irises—pale yellows and blues—have begun to regale us with their displays of vintage glory. (My “big yellow” iris, its blossoms still encased in delicate white paper sheaths, patiently awaits for the opportune moment to burst. The wait, I, the impatient one, must say, is well worth it. This yellow is truly one that does not contradict for it stops you dead in your tracks.)

And new plants appear…no, not ones I purchased; no, not ones that just emerged from winter hibernation, but ones that precipitate from generous neighbors. Jenn and Jane, who own Wilmington’s splendiferous Fresh Thymes Café (they make their scrumptious goods with farm fresh, organic ingredients; this café is a must for the Wilmington-bound), surprised me the other evening with two most glorious of gifts: the inimitable Lemon Scented geranium (Pelargonium crispum) and the delicious Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans). If the gifts were not enough, Jenn provided me with, er, sage advice: soak the leaves of the lemon scented geranium in rose water and apply to the face as an astringent. It also helps, apparently, mitigate wrinkles. Perhaps I should skip the soaking of the leaves and rub them directly onto my face…

Time after time: their generosity. Jenn and Jane are the quintessential optimists. They remind me of that which is basic and necessary in this world: appreciation. All the rest—friends, great food, great wine, conversation, happiness, whatever…all of it follows from appreciation. Without appreciation, we lose our way in the world by becoming side-tracked with unfulfilled desires. They teach me by their examples and with their quiet fortitude that, no matter the insurmountable obstacles life puts in one's way, one must still appreciate what one has. For from appreciation precipitates a particular kind of inner-calm, and the ability to persevere.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Victory (Gardens)!

I harbor a fondness for certain kinds of posters, though I do not own any. The animated Realism of Soviet, Fascist, and even Nazi propaganda posters that celebrate the virile body, the learned and sacrificial self, and the committed family in the service of the nation command my attention with their visceral simplicity. Of course we in the West might look upon such posters as amusing, perhaps even as forms of folk art. We may think we are better than to be swayed by such overt commandments from our governments. But one really only needs to scratch the proverbial surface to find examples in liberal Western democracies of similar kinds of propaganda (and, digging deeper, corresponding response).

War (or the path leading up to war) contains its own exigencies and demands which, I suppose, come to create a peculiar context (and logic) within which different seeds of ideas and kernels of near-truths may be planted and, with appropriate meddling, cultivated into grand historical narratives that compel peoples and nations to do awful things. As you stare at those posters, you can feel that something is about to happen in part because you know something awful did happen: indeed, several awful things, to be slightly more exact.

Today, many of us cannot fathom in our wildest imaginations the kinds of deprivations others experience in the face of revolution, war, and dictatorship. If the video game and the occasional film can easily conjure war’s violence, the same do not and cannot replicate the scarcities. Our imaginations are all the poorer, we all the more self-referential.

To mitigate nutritional deprivations caused by war, various governments—the US, Canada, the UK, and Germany—called upon their populations to plant their small parcels of land with vegetables, fruit, and herbs. The Victory Garden, as it came to be called (I feel inexplicably compelled to capitalize these grass-roots endeavors, perhaps out of respect), emerged as an idiosyncratic and unexpected connection between the home-bound and the combatant abroad. Gardening itself became an act of resistance, an affiliate of warfare, and extension of patriotic pride and self-responsibility. If “Every Garden a Munition Plant” and “Our Food is Fighting” roused Americans to sow seeds from NY’s Upper West Side Riverside to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, “Dig for Victory” incited British public officials to plow plots in London’s Hyde Park.
But gardening was not war. It was an affiliate of war. Gardening was victory. And victory was gardening.

I am reminded of Victory Gardens as I achieve my own victories in my amateur gardening life. Last year my Aunt Annie brought me clumps of a lovely, fern-like groundcover, but she could not recall its name. I have searched on the internet for nearly 1 year, testing all kinds of descriptors like “silver leaf ground cover,” “silver fuzzy leaf plants,” and innumerable variations on the same color and texture oriented themes. But to no avail, until several weeks ago when I thought I found my answer: Pteris ensiformis. To be sure, I was skeptical because of the plant’s tropical origins. Sure, Delaware is rather warm and humid these days, but having lived in both Cambodia and Houston I can verily state that, no matter how often I curse the weather while dripping with perspiration, Delaware is not tropical.

Yesterday, what I thought to be Pteris produced a diminutive yellow flower (which, to my knowledge, ferns do not do), and so this morning I searched for “yellow flower ground cover.”  Several pages into a rather extensive botanical guide, I found it: Argentina anserina! The photograph corresponded exactly to my own specimen. I cross-checked my findings, thinking I was once again mistaken, but every other search verified the data. Victory was mine! Silver Cinquefoil, a.k.a. Silverweed, indeed flourishes in my shade gardens, and looks splendid and regal with its silver coat shimmering as breezes gently sway its frond-like appendages.

And another victory became apparent this morning: what I thought to be Uvularia grandiflora or Large Flowered Bellwort is actually Disporum flavens (the search for “yellow flower ground cover” also yielded non-ground cover yellow-flowering spring plants, of which Disporum flavens or Asian Fairy Bells was one). Odd, since the two plants really do look very much alike, but they even come from different botanical families (Uvularia is a member of the Lily or Liliaceae family, while Disporum is of the Colchicaceae clan).

Such victories pale in comparison to the fortitude of all those Victory Gardeners during the wars, but victories are rather subjective affairs. Germany may have lost both wars, but those civilians who survived, perhaps in part by cultivating small plots of land for sustenance emerged victorious in their own right. Victories are everywhere, great and small. We just need to learn how to appreciate and savor them.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Pole Dancing

America seems to miss out on all of the good stuff. Take May Day, for example.

Long before Christian Europeans, anarchists, and Socialists adopted (and inevitably transformed) the May Day holiday, Druids celebrated the Beltane (and central and northern Europeans Walpurgisnacht) by alighting fires both to encourage the springtime sun into summer intensity and to purify the community in exchange for agricultural abundance. Then the occupying hordes from the south came along and gave Beltane a decidedly Roman flavor: celebrations were geared more towards honoring Flora, the goddess of flowers, and less towards ritual purification of cattle and crops. At least emphasis remained on the agricultural and botanical.

Christian adoption of the holiday brought purity back into the fore—this time by celebrating a chaste young woman who was anointed Queen of the May. She would be crowned not with thorns (as the Romans and the Christians were wont to do) but with flowers, and celebrants would engage in a less provocative form of pole dancing than we today would think: they would not wrap legs but garlands of lovely flowers around the pole as dancers skipped gaily around it and each other.

In my sometimes warped mind, I think that such frivolity would only encourage the very behaviors the holiday’s Christian celebrants warned against: drinking, dancing, cavorting, holding hands, frolicking…But my thinking is not so perverse as the reader may conclude. Floralia was a feast for the body: nudity and merriment reigned; the point was to celebrate and encourage fertility (of the soil, of the body, and my prudence likes to think of the mind as well, though I am convinced that probably wasn’t the point). Put in a Victorian moralist frame, the Roman and pagan holiday was a licentious, not a virtuous one, a dramatic assertion of living and not a celebration of the solemnity of life. (Me: I prefer living over life, so sign me up as a death panel candidate if I ever face the misfortune of suffering the end of my days in incurable, severe pain, or lose control of thought and speech and become irreversibly disconnected from the world of the living.)

But I digress.

To celebrate May Day and publicize her fertility, nature has rewarded me with these curious lovely flowers that had been planted by 410's previous owner but did not bloom until this year: Ornithogalum umbellatum, a.k.a. the ordinary Star of Bethlehem or Grass Lily. I love the way the white accentuates the silver of the Argentina anserina, a.k.a. Silver Cinquefoil, or Silverweed and the white edges of the hosta.

After a long cool spell, the rhododendron began to burst open yesterday, as did the Lena Scotch Broom. Last year, the azalea and the rhododendron coordinated their bloom times which transformed the front garden into a sea of fuchsia, but this year the plants staggered their displays, probably because each wanted to be the center of attention on its own terms. Rhodie is this year's May Pole, though not the sort we usually see.

And to my delight, my Siberian irises will provide me with flowers this year (the photo shows the purple-hued buds)! They protested their transplant two years ago by withholding their blooms and causing me to spiral into despair.

Happy May Day to all! Happy Floralia! Celebrate, and be thankful for not simply the bare fact of life, but the intricate and complex joys of living!