Of peonies and other flowery musings

Here’s the view out my living room window for June 1. JuneViewThis is what I see when I sit to drink my morning coffee. You can see the winter damage on the rhododendron closest to the house–more pruning is needed.

The bloom color at this time of year is pink, purple, blue, white. Yellows and golds will come soon and then in mid-summer the hot colors–the flame of crocosmia and hot pink phlox.

The tree peony only had 2 blooms this year–winter was hard on it as well. The blooms were deep magenta, big and blowsy, reminiscent of the tissue paper flowers I made when I was a kid. The plant always blooms in late May and inevitably the weather turns hot just about the point that the blooms appear.

These blooms are short lived in the best of conditions but the heat propels them along even faster–the buds open, flowers spread their petals out, and whomp they’re gone, in the space of a hot day. I wanted to get a picture of them this year but didn’t move quickly enough.

Sometimes I clip off one of the flowers and bring it in to float for a few days in a shallow dish of water but this year the 2 flowers bloomed and fell in less than a day. Once the bloom has passed, this is an unassuming plant with fairly ordinary green foliage–but for a day or two in spring, it prances and preens–look at me, look at me.

The regular peonies, which are dotted around the various garden beds, are slower to bloom and they retain their blooms in full glory for longer–the challenge is knowing when to cut a big bouquet before a pounding rain, again inevitable at this time of year. So far only one flower has appeared and I cut it yesterday to put in a glass vasepeonyvase on the mantel. Hopefully the buds that cover the plants will survive the rains to come over the next couple of days.

There wasn’t much of a garden here when I moved in–some foundation plantings and a small bed in the back. But this modest array of shrubs and plants got me started on my gardens and many of the plants have lived on: a peony; 4 rhododendrons; an andromeda; several lilacs, including one with deep purple blooms; an azalea with hot pink flowers; a patch of white Siberian iris; some Jacob’s Ladder, coreopsis, and Ozark sundrops. I’ve lifted and divided and replanted in new locations and it’s all going strong.

Although life in a garden is often a story of transience, of beauty that blooms and fades quickly, falls prey to pests or storms, it can also be a story of continuity, of resilience. I don’t know who planted everything originally. Maybe the couple who were renting the house. I like to think it was the original owner–a single woman like myself who had the house built in the late 50s and lived here for many years. There was once a deck on the back of the house—I like to think of her sitting on that deck sipping coffee before work, looking at the rhododendrons in full bloom.

Drum roll please!

It’s done.The raised bed is built, filled, and planted. Yahoo! I feel like a new parent, proudly showing pictures of my “baby” to all who will politely and patiently look. It began with the hint of an idea—as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts I wanted to experiment with raised beds or planters to make weeding and planting and harvesting easier for stiff hips and knees. I did a lot of online research and chatted many times with my very patient friend Pam who is great at DIY projects. I rejected the idea of waist high planters—they’re expensive, need a firm level surface to stand on, might limit what I could plant.

So, on to raised beds. I looked at kits online—pricey. I then thought of just buying corner connectors online and purchasing lumber at a lumberyard but the connectors I wanted weren’t available. I looked at kits available in local stores. Here’s one (I didn’t like the metal but did like the size):metal bed

I finally settled on building the box from scratch with Pam’s help. Off I went to my local lumberyard, where a helpful employee talked me down from my vision of cedar (too expensive) and directed me toward spruce boards and hemlock 4 x 4s for corner supports.

Pam arrived on a hot Sunday afternoon with her cordless drill and other tools and we built the box (well, I measured, marked, and held things while she drilled and screwed in screws). Here it is, with one inaugural shovelful of dirt inside:empty bed

This past weekend, I purchased bags of dirt (didn’t want to use my weed filled compost) and filled the box. This required hauling and dumping 15 thirty to forty pound bags of soil, which I managed without throwing my back out—no small feat! I then had the pleasure of shopping for and planting a garden filled with cutting flowers and herbs. Here’s the newly planted bed:filled bed

Downsizing? Well…let me tell you about that.

Everything is growing so quickly now that it’s gotten hot. Mounds of green, daffodils and tulips and an early rhododendron blooming. Weeds dotting the soil, dandelions galore. The rabbits are getting fat and lazy munching on grass and weeds–I watched one late this afternoon, munching and hopping and then stretching out in the cool grass to rest, sated at last I imagined after a long cold hungry winter.

Instead of doing my part toward the downsizing, which is marking the plants I want to keep and thinking through where they might go and maybe even transplanting some of them (no need to wait for Tom on that), I began to plan out a new garden. I know–that’s not exactly downsizing. But it’s hard to stop.

This one, if I carry through on the plans, will be more easily managed. There’s an l-shaped stretch of dirt that I’ve used for a cutting garden and for herbs. I created it on the site of a Norway maple that was cut down several years ago. I dug it out of lawn and added composted soil from my compost pile which is a cold pile and full of weed seeds.

I’ve paid the price with several years of cutting gardens that are so full of happy, healthy weeds it’s hard to see the flowers. And then there are those bunnies who love to munch tender new growth. So my fantasy now is to put in a raised bed or two with landscaping cloth underneath to keep those pesky weeds out and enough height to the beds to keep the bunnies from eating the plants (they seem to love sunflowers). It would mean work this summer but something will be in place for coming years that will be easy to maintain.

So, how do I feel about downsizing the garden? I’m there but not there.

I’m in the same in between place inside the house. I’ve been clearing and decluttering in my daydreams–but not in reality. I read somewhere online about the idea of a 30 day declutter. On day 1 you throw away or recycle one item, day 2, 2 items, and so on.

What a great idea I thought–but it hasn’t happened. Instead the detritus of a busy life continues to pile up around me. The bedroom is in its seasonal transitional mess–boxes with summer clothes in the corner, winter clothes piling up on the cedar chest waiting for the summer clothes to exit the plastic box, spring clothes in the closet, the down duvet on the floor where I flung it the other night when I realized it was just too warm these days for down, dirty clothes and bedding and towels overflowing the laundry bin, in spite of regular trips down to the washing machine. The seasonal identity crisis continues in the living room where wool scarves and hats and gloves still live in a basket near the front door at the same time as the world is exploding with heat and sun just outside the window. At least I put my boots away.

The garden is waking up–am I ready?

The yard is now mostly snow free and greening up. I make my way around each day after work, 1 or 2 circuits, checking on winter damage, seeing what’s coming up. HelleboreYesterday I noticed that one of the hellebores, nestled at the edge of the woody area, was blooming, its deep magenta blooms nodding on short stems. There are two more hellebores not yet in full bloom. At the other corner of the yard are daffodils just about ready to flower and crocuses have sprouted up all over the front border.

It’s a tantalizing and contradictory season, the landscape still brown and sandy and dry. Dead leaves from last fall litter the dormant grass. The brown and rolled up leaves of the rhododendron are a constant reminder of winter harshness. But everywhere there are tastes and nibbles of spring.

I try to feel this as an invitation, to experience a rising of joy, and often I do feel that. But it can also feel like pressure looking at everything that needs to be pruned and weeded and edged and raked. In recent years I’ve become all too aware of the limits of time and an aging body.

My lot is 1/3 acre. Over the years, I’ve put in lots of perennial beds, mostly not all that well planned. There’s the circular bed in the middle of the front yard that developed after I had a spruce tree taken down and needed to fill the big bare spot that emerged and the bed at the corner of the driveway that I created from the dregs of the topsoil I’d had hauled in for the circular bed. front irisIn the back, there’s a long border that grew from a smaller bed left by the previous owners of the house. There’s a teardrop shaped bed that grew up around an old laundry post that has since fallen down, another bed that started as an herb garden until I realized it didn’t get enough sun–the Siberian iris I’d planted around the edge were taking over and the herbs dying away. Now it’s home to daylilies and iris. Iris

I put many of these beds in during summers off when I worked at the university. I reveled in my strong back, my ability to dig and haul wheelbarrows full of dirt around, to wrench shrubs out of the earth and move them to a different spot, to attack overgrown clumps of hosta roots or Siberian iris roots and break them up into a host of smaller plants, to wield the tiller and shove the unpowered mower around.

I’ve never been athletic or thought much about fitness so it surprised me how much I enjoyed the physical labor of gardening. I always paced myself. I’d work for a while, then pause to watch birds and rabbits and just feel the air. I’d go inside, get a drink, sit and look at the garden, maybe stretch a bit, before plunging back in. But even with my measured approach I’d end the day achy and covered head to toe in dirt–but oh so satisfied.

Now I work full time through the summer months and my back and hips no longer tolerate long hours bent down to plant and weed–30, 45 minutes and I’m done. I’ve slowly come to realize that something needs to shift. I need to downsize the garden and make it more easily tended–use shrubs and ground cover more–put in some raised beds, plant things in planters. I approach this partly as an interesting design problem to be solved and I’m excited by the possibilities.

But I’m also sad. These beds–even the sometimes scruffy and overgrown ones–hold memories. I meant to get started on this project last year but couldn’t bring myself to disassemble any of the beds. Let’s say I start with the bed at the back of the yard. Is it the phlox that will go? The crocosmia with its scarlet flame of bloom? The nepetaP8120112 that my old cat Indigo used to nibble on? The rose that I nurture along each year and then watch it die back each winter? The same questioning happens with each bed I look at.

There are certainly lessons here about attachment and letting go, about bowing and bending to what is, to the present moment, about adapting–and that’s fitting. That’s what a garden’s all about–adaptation and change.

March in New England

“…So how does this dialogue of green begin?”

-From “Looking for Spring” by Jean Connors

I have felt bound, boundaried, all winter. Now it’s late afternoon, late March–Skies have turned grey and it’s spitting rain, wind is whipping tree branches around, temperature hovers in the low 40s. The snow recedes slowly.

The rhododendrons have suffered winter damage, many leaves are brown and curled. Hopefully the buds are OK and bloom will be good. It’s hard to imagine May will come with its brightly blooming flowers.

A few crocuses are up and blooming IMG_0224along the front of the house. The hellebore is still covered with snow but the epimedium is uncovered–I will rake away the old foliage so the flower stalks can come up unimpeded. The boxwood near the front door is still partially buried but I can see many broken branches–it might need a radical pruning.

This afternoon after work, I swept sand off the front walk and bird seed hulls off the porch. The hungry birds have dotted the front porch with poop–the railing and porch will need painting this year. The rose bush at the front of the driveway is still covered with a big pile of snow–I suspect it will need pruning down to the ground as will the spirea in the back, also buried under big snow piles.

I want to stride across the yard but the mounds of snow deter me. Instead I pick my way along the icy path to the backyard bird feeder–I wonder if the squirrels have finally found a way in to the feeders since they’re emptying really quickly these days. This is the second time I’ve filled feeders this week.

I went for a short walk before the rain came. My next door neighbors built a snowman during Saturday’s snowfall and it’s now two large snow balls sprawled in the yard with mittens attached to the smaller ball. Down the street I spot the remains of a snow tunnel built by an enterprising child. Snow can be fun, I remind myself.

This is March in New England after a long hard winter. Bird song is changing, I’ve seen and heard mourning doves, willow trees are turning yellow, I see buds on the maple, sap is flowing–these are small hopeful signs, the beginning of a dialogue with green, but spring still seems remote–a promise, a perhaps. Be in the present I whisper to myself, find the kernel of beauty in this moment.

Morning musing

I’m not a morning person. I don’t leap out of bed greeting the glorious morn. I savor the warmth of duvet and pillows pulled close, the slow drift in and out of sleep, the edge of light sneaking past the window shades when I open my eyes and then darkness again, the strange half dreams that happen at dawn.

 My cat has other ideas. At my first stirring she tunes up her complaints about an empty bowl. Sometimes I open my eyes to see her sitting at the end of the bed silently staring—I close my eyes again and soon feel the mattress shift slightly as she pads up the side of the bed to stand over me sniffing my breath. “Is she still alive?” I imagine her wondering (if she could wonder such things).

 And I have a job with a mandated arrival time so between imploring cat and job I have to act like a morning person. I slowly sit up, stretch, stand, and shuffle down the hall to the bathroom and then invite the yowling and purring cat to go outside so that I can have peace while I cope with the kitchen.

 I get the coffee started, pop toast in toaster, spoon cat food into cat’s dish, and then let the cat back inside. She races to her dish, meowing, and starts to eat. I take my coffee and toast and sit at the dining table, which is placed in front of a picture window winter2with a view of the birdfeeders, gardens, and trees. Right now the view is snow, snow, and more snow.

 I’m not a morning person but I’ve come to relish these few moments when I can sit by this window and drink coffee, munch on toast, watch the birds peck and nibble and squirrels chase each other. Except for the bird and squirrel activity it’s a static world in winter. On occasion I’ve seen an owl in the branches of one of the trees–every morning I look but rarely spot it. I know if I ventured out and looked closely I’d see an array of tracks but from the warmth of the house, viewed through glass, nothing moves. This is a pause, a time to breathe slowly. I sit forward on the edge of the chair so the cat can jump up behind me, her warm body pressed against my back. I sit some more, mind still on pause, before standing to begin the get-ready-for-work routine.

 What do you look forward to in your mornings?