Thursday, January 27, 2011

Education of the Garden

Grammatically, "education of the garden" seems to make no sense. Is an anonymous observer receiving an education of the garden (in which case the title should probably, and most appropriately in a grammatical sense read "education about the garden")? Is the garden being educated? If so, how? By what? By whom?

Given the closure of classes today because of the foot of wet, heavy snow that fell upon northern Delaware last night, I thought I would dispose of grammar and the spirit of education and use words improperly!

But, silliness aside, it is true: my garden--no matter how inanimate, no matter how incapable it is as a whole of "learning" in any active, substantive sense--received an education this morning. It earned, by virtue of its location, a doctorate as a matter of fact.

A Ph.D.

Yes: a Ph.D. as in "Pile it Higher and Deeper."

Look at all of this snow piled upon the improbably named sun-garden!

Look at the snow's effects in the shade garden: Viburnum, laden with snow and having dropped from its aerial perch by over 3 feet, now shelters the Buddha; the pendulous branches of Kerria japonica have an unexpected cousin in the neighboring Nikko Blue Hydrangea (both pictured at the top of this post, though seen in this wider shot); and the "sea anemone" that has become the Lady in Red Hydrangea (pictured below, in the foreground) appears less radiant, less spectacular than she did in the last snowfall as considerably more snow buried most of her medusa-like appendages (and let us not mention Nandina, behind her, reduced to a mound of snow).

The sight of the snow is delightful, magical, and even transformative. I think for most adults snow brings out the child in us, if but for a fleeting moment (though most adults I know will not admit this, preferring instead to complain and momentarily kvetch about inconveniences or sore backs from shoveling) before the realization that we need to reschedule meetings; possibly find daycare or take an unexpected "sick" day from work to watch the kids because no daycare was to be found; dig out the car and the driveway and the walkway and the garbage bins; and all other winter-esque chores associated with the falling of snow.

But for me, the moment of sophomoric giddiness dissipates when I realize that the snow is just too heavy to throw onto that patch far from the walkway where the herbaceous plants once proudly and dramatically stood, as opposed to on or near the rosemary or dwarf yew or Euphorbia which so graciously remain with us throughout the harsh winter months. Yes. That is the moment of truth, the inestimable moment in which a youthful fascination with winter immediately metamorphoses into a disgust or hatred. I think of the crushed Creeping Phlox or my beloved, but now crushed, Blue Star Lithodora (both of which remain with us, too, throughout the winter). I see the Lena Scotch Broom, burdened under mounds of heavy snow, and I try to rescue her delicate (but ever resilient) outstretched branches from the weight of matter by sliding my shovel under as many wispy branches as possible to shake the snow from its icy grips.

Yes, the snow plunges us into a veritable, cumbersome existential crisis--to bury alive or not to bury--that is pitted against another crisis--to walk sans encumbrance of ice or snow, or not to walk. We all know the answer. And for the tenacious gardener, there is always the city ordinance that demands property owners remove snow from passageways (and not throw it into city streets) under threat of monetary penalty for failure to do so.

And so there you have it, dear reader: the education of the garden. I piled it higher and deeper onto my beloveds, hoping they will forgive and reward me with blooms all season, from the earliest moments of March when Pieris graces us with its tendrils of miniature bell-shaped flowers to the last burning embers of sun in November just strong enough to sustain the hardy chrysanthemums before the death-knell of frost.

In the meantime, I'd better get back to the kind of work that demonstrates my own Ph.D., of whichever sort you interpret.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sexlessness: Sawtooth Aucuba and My Lack of Babies

The Huffington Post featured an unusual article this morning on the sexless lives of the Japanese. Yes, sexless. Or virtually sexless. Or becoming sexless.

Concerned about its long declining birthrate, its aging population, and its subsequent population imbalance, the Japanese Government commissioned a study and found that a startling 36.1% of teenage boys (more than twice the 2008 figure of 17.5%) and 59% of teenage girls (up from 47%) had little to no interest in sex, and even, in some cases, despised fornication! (How could you despise fornication without having done it?!) Astonishing!

The cause or causes? It appears Japan's nearly 20 year long recession (and more pertinently, its "Lost Decade"--yes, they even named the period...that should give an indication of either how bad the situation has been or how deeply the Japanese have been psycho-sexually disturbed by their declining global potence or their rising impotence...sorry, I couldn't resist) has had its effect. Teenage boys and young men over 20 cited  the perceived financial burden of raising a family in "difficult" economic times. (Wow: isn't that what condoms are for? I think manga; Pachinko--those Tokyo Pachinko parlors were always full, no matter the time of day; and video games might deserve some of the blame.) Difficult economic times, we may deduce, have burdened the already married: 40.8% of married couples reported a lack of sex in the last month due to "work fatigue," a "reluctance to have sex after childbirth," and an attitude of "we can't be bothered."

Sex is so utterly political--and economic.

So what, pray tell, does sex have to do with the garden?

Well, dear reader, hold onto your hats.

An acquaintance and his partner recently adopted a baby girl, and while it is true that I am happy-to-my-core for them, my self-absorbed demon began to lament a lack of children in my own life. I've been thinking about this for several years, and Viet and I have occasionally discussed the issue. But now, my biological clock ticks more loudly than I could have imagined.

And as a diversion I look to Sawtooth Aucuba. Sexless? Babyless? No wonder, with a name like Sawtooth, who would want to have sex with it?! Can you imagine?! OUCH!

Once again, I think in tangents... Once again, I think dirty thoughts...

But, the truth is, my Sawtooth Aucuba is sans offspring. Read any gardening guide and it will tell you that Sawtooth Aucuba will "produce scarlet berries from fall to spring." A wondrous addition to my shade garden, with winter interest to boot!

Yet, I have no berries. Barren.

Of course, to produce babies (not adopting babies, mind you, but making them, which is, well, sexier than adoption, and though messy in its own right, making babies probably isn't as messy as adopting them...goodness, the paperwork!), we need a male and a female, and I confess that I do not know what I have. It's not as simple as looking under the hood, if you know what I mean. And flowers in the spring will not be of any assistance. Androecious plants produce (male) flowers (pollen but no seeds); and Gynoecious plants produce (female) flowers (seeds but no pollen). You'd think nature would have color coded these things by now...

But, my Sawtooth Aucuba is, technically, Aucuba japonica Serratifolia. Japonica, as in, "from Japan." As in, sexless. Now I understand.

Perhaps my lack of babies has little to do with me (though with my luck, I'd end up buying all female or all male plants, and still, no berries, though we might have quite the orgy!).

Perhaps it has everything to do with the Japanese.

** Written with the knowledge that I'll never be Secretary of State, and so can risk offending entire countries, even if the offense is unintentional.** 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Color in the Garden: Winter White

"From December to March, there are for many of us three gardens--
the garden outdoors,
the garden of pots and bowls in the house,
and the garden of the mind's eye."
               --Katharine S. White

Yet for many, the garden of the mind's eye is difficult to see. Clouds of white or layers of brown obscure the abundance that may be the garden. Greens have lost their vivacity; bare branches expose their angularities against gray winter skies. 

Two recent coatings of snow have created a new garden-scape. We delight in the suspended lines of white--misshapen, arched, crooked, gnarled, straight--above our heads, occupying the space once reserved for canopies of leaves, that create illustrious impermanent aerial gardens, suspended in time and space in those moments just after a snowfall but before the sunlight, even on a frigid January day, shines with laser-like focus and melts this wondrous sky-scape (or before the squirrels, as they currently do outside the window in my study, shake loose the snow as they frolic).

The Lady in Red Lacecap Hydrangea (pictured below) has become a sea anemone, its predaceous tendrils punctuating the sky not for fish and crustaceans but for bits of sunlight, as if to reassure itself that this time, too, will pass.

Moments like these, bathed in winter white, make one appreciate the browns of the winter garden. Browns like contrast. Multiple greens can withstand each other, even if they are of the same shade (which often they are not) precisely because a diversity of leaf shapes offers the interest and the oppositions that the eye and the mind desperately need to absorb and make sense of the garden. But brown in the late autumn and winter garden is so pestilent because of its omnipresence. We even lose the respect for that life-giving substance without which the garden would not exist: soil.

But dash a bit of winter white about, and brown rejuvenates. Cascades of Tall Purpletop Verbena with their seed pods capturing bundles of winter white evoke waterfalls; we see not stagnation but movement.

Rose Mallow's svelte legs assume a mauve hue 'gainst the winter scape; and we see spring embedded in that corner of the garden as the minty green leaves of the Wintergreen boxwood peer out from under the snow, childlike, as if it could not sleep with the knowledge that Santa Claus soon would visit.

And Burning Bush: it even glows in the winter (albeit with early morning assistance from the street light). But its delicate red berries and striated stems offer texture and unexpected pops of color.

Moments like these propagate appreciation not just for and of the garden itself, but for and of the personalities of individual plants--and especially of those who remain above ground throughout those trying months of frost and freezing temperatures.

Yet another reason to plant with winter in mind, and yet another reason to look with the mind's eye.


Thursday, January 6, 2011


After my lamentations this morning, I went outside to retrieve the garbage bin after trash pick-up. On my way back to the rear of the house, at the eastern edge of the front shade garden where it borders the passage through the alley, I saw a large paint chip atop the vestiges of Helene von Stein Lamb's Ear. (While the crew which is working on my windows is neat, invariably paint chips blowing in the wind are deposited here and there.)

I bent down to pick it up, but it was partially frozen to one of the leaves. Apparently I gave it too much of a tug, because it my hand not only did I get the paint chip, but an entire a branch of Ms. von Stein, complete with beautiful, healthy looking yellow-tinted roots, and a few fresh green leaves protected by a few decaying leaves.

I performed an inadvertent amputation! Poor Ms. von Stein! No wonder women steer clear of me. I once squeezed a lady friend's hand and cracked her finger bone. A lean-to for a kiss on the cheek once sent me and my friend nearly tumbling onto the floor because I lost my balance. And no wonder why I am seldom invited to parties in which red wine is featured prominently. My dearest friend Mehrnaz knows all too well the damage that I can inflict upon rare silk Persian carpets.

So I brought her poor little severed arm into the house, and down in the basement "garden center" where I plucked her decaying leaves, inserted her bare roots into soil, brought her upstairs for a thorough watering, and placed her potted self on the sill of a sunny southwesterly facing window. Inadvertent amputations bring inadvertent winter gardening! Violence can be under-rated.

Let's hope that unlike most amputations, her little amputated arm with grow a new body, and her body will grow a new arm.


In Judaism, Eikhah, or the Book of Lamentations, is recited on Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the month of Av, which usually falls in mid-to late July), the solemn holiday that marks the destruction of not one, but the two great temples in Jerusalem. Talk about bad luck.

Bad luck is not usually a theme one wants to entertain at the beginning of a new year, but, be relieved, bad luck is not what is at stake here. Lamentations is at issue: my lamenting over the temporary loss—even the intangibility—of the garden.

During these times I find I most need the space of the garden, the outlet, the alternative activity that provides a room to contemplate undisturbed while working the soil with my bare fingers, or to feel nothing but the presence of a nature that is only marginally under my influence, or to recognize that I do something—something else that provides rewards of a different sort.

Snow for a time covered the moribund brown that has descended upon this mid-Atlantic earth and provided a more appealing ubiquity, even as it reminded us of being entrapped (always temporarily) in winter’s snare. But several warm days and a period of rain removed all but two minor mounds of snow in my garden, and we look out again at blanched greens and at brown, the color we usually love, but the one color that, during winter, mocks itself.

Now, we may lament, and we may feel sorrow, and we may feel the longing. And, to stave off the sadness, we may sift through the plant and seed catalogues and be seduced by the sale prices and the proliferation of color. (Yes, dear reader, I have my Spring Hill sale catalogue and a packet of “desires” sitting to my right: Hosta Tokudama and Voodoo Lily, White Christmas Rose Hellebore for my late winter garden and Toad Lily for autumn color, and Wintergreen groundcover with its edible red berries, among so many others.)

But we must also recall, like the Book of Lamentations, that even in our sorrows we must recognize and nurture the seeds of hope. The Book, it is presumed, was written by survivors of the respective destructions and attempted annihilations of peoples. Of course the book reflects their sorrows and their angers, their hatreds and their traumas. But the book was written by survivors.

So I take heed and apply the lesson to the garden in winter. We survive, and to take the pain out of the months in which the garden is nearly intangible, we must plan accordingly. For all of us small space gardeners, we haven’t the luxury of planting large winter-interest bushes or blooming witch-hazels, and so we must be more inventive, more creative, in our approach.

Wintergreen is a lovely ground cover for the shade that provides year-round interest. Its pinkish flowers in the spring give way to delightfully red berries in the autumn which, apparently, songbirds love. I haven’t Wintergreen in my garden but it is surely on my must-have list.

What I do have provides a modicum of hope for the upcoming garden season.

Sawtooth Aucuba japonica Serratifolia (Serrated Japanese Laurel), offering springtime promise in the guise of lime green new growth tips,
and Holly Fern which, though a bit trampled by the snow-pack (and the workmen at my house), offers robust and lovely contrast against the browned landscape, 

and the Autumn Fern, which is fetching against a backdrop of the dried remnants of the Nikko Blue Hydrangea,

and Firepower Nandina which, in contrast to its Nandina domestica cousin, does not offer bright red berries, but bright red (or scarlet) foliage throughout the winter,

and Pieris japonica, whose tendrils of flower buds cannot help but elicit a smile, and an upwelling of hope and heightened anticipation,

and, finally, in the front sun garden, Euphorbia x martini Rudolph Waleuphrud which, honestly, sported very red tips yesterday but today must have donned a more sullen posture in the midst of an impending snowstorm.

So, fellow gardeners, this is our quest: to find more winter-interest plants which move beyond the conifers, and to situate them in the garden in all of the right places--which is to say in our line of vision through windows. Why? Because when we begin to lament and wail, we simply move our fattening bodies to the window and witness that life does continue, hope remains, and soon we shall be as dirty as some of my thoughts as expressed in this blog.