Waiting

I’m not the best at waiting. Like a lot of people, I value efficiency. I want things to happen when I want them to happen (that seldom works as I hope it will).

The one place where I seem to not mind waiting is in the garden. We didn’t actually have much of a winter here; the flowering quince bloomed sporadically from November until now. The hydrangeas leafed out twice and got blown back by freezes. The witch hazel, on the other hand, offered up only about four flowers; I presume it didn’t have enough chilling hours to produce a show. But a few plants wait patiently, and I watch them waiting.

fern fronds tight.JPG

Fern fronds are curled tightly.

I love curled fern fronds. The idea that this spiral, like those of pinecones or aloes or many other plants, follow the mathematics of the Fibonacci sequence, fills me with wonder. I take as much delight in staring at this lump in the ground and thinking about the mathematics replicated throughout the natural world, as I do in admiring their feathery green fronds after a summer rainstorm.

mystery succulent.jpg

I have no idea what this plant is. If you know, please comment.

I acquired this mystery houseplant (yes, yes, it’s not in the garden, technically….) from a friend on a gardening listserv in my area. She didn’t know its name, either. It replicates itself by forming babies on the periphery of the leaves, then the main stem of the plant falls over and dies and the babies root. In the background of the photo, you can see the withering stem of its sister who already reproduced and shuffled off her mortal coil. I’m waiting every day for the big one to do the same. I feel slightly vicious, anticipating this plant’s death (it never did anything to me other than please me), but it’s exciting, a bit like watching a tree fall in slow-motion.

seed grown primula.JPG

Primula vulgaris, grown from seed.

I have been waiting for this nickel-sized bloom for two years. I love primulas but never had success growing them from seed. Most instructions advise sowing the seed directly in the garden in early spring.

Following those instructions got me nowhere. Two years ago, I learned to sow the seed in August, in a pot outdoors, and let it overwinter exposed more or less to the elements. I kept mine in a cold frame whose windows are a bit leaky, particularly when I forget from time to time to close them.

Success! I transplanted about a dozen seedlings and kept them watered particularly through the hot summers. A few weeks ago, I saw the first tiny little bud. I squealed like a toddler and frightened the dog.

I tell you, I am absurdly proud of this tiny little flower. I hope its siblings will bloom soon. But if not, that’s okay, too. I will wait.

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Gardening as spiritual practice: Slowing down, looking around

Sometimes, when I approach my house from the road, I think “Oh, what a terrible mess.” I see the weeds that need pulling, the plants growing in the wrong places, the big gaps where plants haven’t filled in as quickly as I hoped.

Thinking about the garden this way–Don’t I owe it to the neighbors to stay on top of my weeds? Is my garden turning into the neighborhood eyesore?–turns it from a joy into a chore. Moreover, such a mindset prevents me from enjoying nature in its cycle, where it is and as it is, in the present. So yesterday I took a few minutes out from weeding to appreciate the gorgeous rosy colors of fall in my garden. The oranges and yellows are here, too, but today I’m sticking to a softer palette.

aster tataricus

Aster tataricus

rose chrysanthemum with yellow center

An unknown chrysanthemum, picked up from a bargain table a few years ago. I’ve made many more of it from its cuttings.

Bee on aster tataricus.

Bee on Aster tataricus

iris domestica seed pod

Deep purple-black seeds of Iris domestica (blackberry lily)

ceratotheca triloba

Fuzzy, foxglove-like blossoms of Ceratotheca triloba.

spider egg sacs in yucca plant

Two egg sacs of Argiope aurantia

anemone hupenensis 'Pamina'

Anemone hupenensis ‘Pamina’

physostegia

A pass-along Physostegia (obedient plant) begins to flower.

Gardening as spiritual practice: Waiting

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

August in my garden is almost always a time of waiting. The garden is my primary source for renewal and peace. It is where I am creative, and where I have space and quiet to think. But this August, after so much rain, it is a place of weeds, mud, mosquitoes, and rot. When I head out the door, I don’t see the fruits of my labor, or a blank canvas waiting to be painted. I see enemy territory. I see a long list of my least favorite chores. The garden, for a while, is nearly the last place I want to be.

Gardening teaches (and re-teaches) patience in lots of ways. We learn patience through happy anticipation, waiting for seeds to germinate, for flowers to bloom, for snow to thaw. Why is it that I struggle to view my late-summer landscape with the same anticipation? Is it because the lushness I see outside comes mostly from plants growing in the wrong places? (You know.) Their flowers and seedpods mean the same work for me next year–or perhaps even next month. Is it that this season’s relative dearth of butterflies and bees makes the environment seem lonely? Is it mostly the mud and mess, combined with a lack of available cash (see vacation photos…) to ameliorate the problem?

Whatever it is, I remind myself that the feeling is temporary. The humidity will break in a month or two, and the fall blooming plants will take their turn to delight and surprise me. Those weeds will always be with me, and I must learn to change my attitude about them. So many of them offer critical food or nectar sources for wildlife that I cherish. And so much is happening that I cannot see. Remarkable processes and relationships, which have taken ages to evolve, go through their rhythms before my unseeing eyes.

ants on peony thru magnifying glassI remind myself again that in the garden, there is always something to anticipate happily, and there is always something wonderful unfolding before me. The difference in the garden between a time to mourn and a time to dance is in the gardener’s intention to hear a waltz instead of a dirge.

 

Gardening as spiritual practice: Watching ants on peonies

If you grow peonies, you will have noticed how the buds attract ants–sometimes by the handful.

ant on peony bud

The buds secrete nectar, which the ants devour in a frenzy. This does no harm to the plants (so don’t spray the peonies with insecticide!). One day in early May, I took five minutes out of my morning to watch the ants eat the nectar.

In the morning light, the ants’ black bodies looked metallic; even occasionally translucent, with black bands running across their abdomens. Although the morning was warm, about 60 degrees, the ants moved with short bursts of energy, slowing down in between. They seemed to use their antennae to sweep the nectar towards their heads.

ants on peony bud through magnifying glassThe morning was quiet. I heard only the sounds of birds, or the occasional airplane overhead.

Are these ants in the same colony? Are they competitors? They seem to get along on the bud. They do not fight each other; there is plenty of nectar for each of them. They have no other objective than to do what they are doing. They have no schedule to keep.

I spent only five minutes watching the ants, but it felt so much longer. My mind kept nagging me to get to work, to get going, to do. I had to exercise resolve to stay where I sat, to watch and breathe. Practicing the observation did not come naturally. What does it say about me, or about my culture, that it should be so challenging to be still for 1/288 of a day?

Looking through my magnifying glass, I think I can see the ants’ tongues. It turns out, however, that ants don’t really have tongues; they have fingerlike appendages called palps around their mouths. I don’t know if what I could see were the palps, or the mandibles moving. I’m inclined to think I saw the palps, as the mandibles are quite large. There is so much I don’t know about nature; ants are just the beginning of my ignorance. Perhaps one day I will read E. O Wilson’s definitive work.

ants on peony thru magnifying glassHenry Mitchell used to sit and watch irises unfurl. Fortunately for him, he did not live (at least, not for terribly long) in a world obsessed with the 24-hour news cycle; he had no cell phone nor email demanding his attention, so perhaps it was easier for him to disconnect. At any rate, I loved watching the ants, however challenging it became for me to stay present with them. I know I will try again next May.

 

Gardening as spiritual practice: Food and joy

I’m thinking more about why I garden. I’ll try to reflect on this topic twice a month. I welcome your thoughts on why you garden (or don’t).

Why I Garden: Food

As a topic this is (forgive me) low-hanging fruit.  I don’t have much space to grow edibles but increasingly I find myself trying to sneak edibles into the ornamental landscape. Any little pocket where I can edge in a squash plant or head of lettuce rapidly gets appropriated. But why?

Economics?

Some articles will tell you that it’s cheap to grow your own food. It’s not. The assertion that growing one’s own food is cheap boils down to a comparison of the price of a pound of tomatoes at the local supermarket against the price of a packet of seeds, from which one could, theoretically, grow dozens of pounds of the same vegetable. Any farmer will tell you that this is bad economics. Once you have factored in the cost of building raised beds; buying equipment such as stakes, bird netting, row covers, and fertilizer; not to mention the cost of water, it’s hard to argue that the first growing season, at least, has not yielded some very expensive produce. And what is your time worth? Remember, you’re not being paid to farm your own land. Economics is not the answer.

(See also, on my summer reading list, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander.)

Peace of Mind?

Maybe. I’ll never argue that it’s not good to know where one’s food comes from. But the peace-of-mind argument is one best made early in the season, before the aphids, flea beetles, squash vine borers, squash bugs, spider mites, and the rest of the tiny critters in my ecosystem have had their say. We’ve only had a few days above 90F so far, so my plants still look lush and strong. Check back with me in mid-September, when summer has begun its final month. Some garden pest or other environmental circumstance will have pushed me nearly to the breaking point, and I’ll be wondering whether the effort is worth it.

I’m committed to gardening sustainably, with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, so I can feel secure in the safety of the produce I bring in from the garden. In early June, I can comfortably argue in the words my father sometimes says, “That’s not nothing.”

Better Health?

A sample cover image of Organic Gardening magazine

A sample cover image of Organic Gardening magazine

Growing a garden does make you eat your veggies, assuming you grow what you like to eat and aren’t fussy when your produce doesn’t look exactly like it belongs on the cover of Organic Gardening magazine or the pages of the bible of vegetable porn, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue. Your tomatoes may crack. Your carrots may split or twist. They taste good anyway. And if you aren’t bombarding those veggies with every chemical on the Home Depot garden department shelves, you’ll be better for it. So yes, better health is one reason.

 

Joy

I think joy may be the real reason I garden. Work, bills, obligations, and the challenges of raising near-teenage children drain me. I fret a great deal about the state of the world today (good heavens, what will I be like when I’m in my eighth or ninth decade?). I have met neurosis, and she is me. But when I’m in the garden, I feel none of it.

I don’t kid myself: I’m not in control in the garden, no more than I am in control of nuclear proliferation negotiations or whether Antarctic ice sheets melt. Mother Nature is much bigger than I am. Rather, being in the garden reassures me that my place in the world is quite small, that little in this world depends on me, and that realization is the source of the joy. The seeds I plant would come up with or without my help, because that is what they have evolved to do, but as I shepherd their growth I can marvel at the result of millions of years of work that went into the making of this one moment, when I watch the vine reaching for the sun.

Mulching as spiritual practice

I need to mulch.

Mulching is a garden chore. Although it provides a great benefit to the plants by keeping roots cool, suppressing weeds, stabilizing soil moisture and temperature, and generally  making things tidy, I cannot deny that it’s not nearly as sexy a task as, say, installing new perennials from the nursery.

But in gardening as in life, pedestrian tasks outnumber the exciting ones by a wide margin. One secret to having a beautiful garden is to carve out regular time to maintain things. A second secret is to make peace with having to do those maintenance tasks. Whether you prefer to perform maintenance tasks once a week in a morning-long go, or choose instead to take 10 minutes every evening after dinner, glass of wine in hand, to tidy up one planting bed, finding what works for you and practicing it is what achieves the objective in the long term.

Changing an attitude about a chore is a practice, as surely as with yoga or perfecting a jump shot or mastering an instrument. I am practicing making my peace with weeding and mulching. I have a great deal of material on which to practice.

Oxalis violacea (violet woodsorrel) rapidly filled a bed of hydrangea, spring bulbs, and astilbes.

Oxalis violacea (violet woodsorrel) rapidly filled a bed of hydrangea, spring bulbs, and astilbes.

I’m trying to change my relationship with mulching and weeding by practicing mindfulness. Borrowing from yoga, I begin this journey with setting my intention:

  • I will weed and mulch for 30 minutes.
  • I will not weed without mulching, because disturbing the earth, even in weeding, brings new weed seeds to the surface. Without mulch, they will germinate in the daylight, bringing me fresh weeds and fresh aggravation.
  • I will focus only on my breathing, my weeding, and the sounds around me.

There is a section of the front garden brimming with violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea). I was amused to learn, in doing some research on this plant, that it is endangered or threatened in five states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Rhode Island. (I encourage residents of those states, and those active in botanical conservation, to repopulate their own stocks from mine.) In my garden it grows and reproduces from bulbs at an astonishing pace, like the hydra which grew two heads for every one that was cut off. I hope successful management of Oxalis violacea doesn’t require the same efforts that it took Hercules to slay the hydra.

I fill a five-gallon bucket with mulch. In my other hand, I have a 2-gallon bucket and my garden knife. Sinking to my knees (must remember the foam kneeling pad!), I pull gently but firmly on the cluster of stems.

The earth, softened by heavy downpours from the recent storms, yields the bulb and all its top growth. I drop it into the 2-gallon bucket.

I move to the next cluster. Breathe.

There are so many bird sounds. I am still learning to distinguish them. Field sparrows, song sparrows, wood thrushes. Eastern towhees, northern cardinals, white throated sparrows, and Carolina chickadees. I learned last year the sound of the mourning dove, which for a long time I mistook for an owl. They nest in the neighbor’s trees.

The breeze is soft; just enough to keep me cool.

It’s quiet. Even though it is the time of day when people come home from work, I don’t hear the sounds of cars and commuters.

If the clump of Oxalis doesn’t move easily, I pry under it with the tip of my garden knife to bring up the bulb. The 2-gallon bucket now holds a half-gallon of weeds. I spread the mulch, tucking it close around the stems of newly emerged plants.

The humidity feels like a soft cotton blanket on my skin–enough to know it’s there, enough to make me feel like I am home, not so much that the air feels soupy. It’s perfect.

I hear children down the street, shouting. Are they whacking trees with sticks?

I move slowly and deliberately. When I feel myself speeding up, or thinking of my list of to-dos, I breathe and turn my focus back to the weeding and the sounds around me.

My 2-gallon bucket grows fuller. As I clear space and spread mulch gently with my fingers, I take care not to cover up the tiny sprigs of Oxalis stricta, the common yellow wood sorrel, that also peppers my garden. Those come out too, but I need tweezers. The yellow sorrel is so tiny.

Red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), in one of my oaks.

For the moment, no one is shouting “Mom!,” drawing it out in two syllables. Only the birds are talking, and not to me.

Somewhere far overhead, an airplane–not a jet–buzzes slowly by.