The Phoenix Turns Two

On June 26, 2012, a firestorm roared down the foothills into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs. 346 homes, two human lives, pets, treasures, thousands and thousands of trees, and who knows how many wild ones, gone.  Images of that day still fill my heart with sorrow, helplessness, and dread.

On July 6, 2012, I stepped into an odyssey of healing.

All around the house, every tree and shrub, every perennial, every annual, brown. It was like walking into a sepia toned photo.

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Eventually, all the heat-scorched pine needles would fall.

As I drove week after week through the devastated area to this garden: I felt happy. It was the sight of plant life. First a chartreuse shrub shining way up on the hillside. Then, the scrub oak shrugging up dark green mats. And it was the anticipation of beauty, reckless and daring to re-inhabit the garden.

returning to life

Honoring the lives of all the plants — from towering ponderosa to tiny mounds of pinks — the homeowners waited nearly a full year to give them a chance to come back. I love these folks dearly for this. They could have, you know, sawed and yanked, thrown in new. But they didn’t. They gazed with tenderness. They cheered every new whorl of needles. They praised each opening bud. They gave thanks for the steadfastness of old friends. They said, out loud, of the white firs that had gone up like torches: “They sacrificed themselves to save our house.”

So passed the remainder of the summer of 2012.

Spring of 2013: Together, we hand-picked the trees who would replace those who had perished. I selected shrubs. All this gorgeous vigor made me giddy.

native cork-bark fir

Cork-bark fir, a Colorado native.

the old putting green

The fire melted the astroturf on a little putting green. And it got converted to a garden. How fun is that?

Then, at summer’s end, another disaster, another miracle. Rain. Too much rain. The burn scar, unable to absorb and buffer streams from big rain events, sent debris-filled flood waters crashing through nearby Manitou Springs. But this garden was spared. And the land around it drank as deeply as it could.

In the spring of 2014 a meadow appeared. And by full summer, it was breathtaking.

meadow following fire

Not all the trees who perished were replaced. One fine old friend became a different work of art.

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flames above trout

bear face

mountain lion

Short weeks after the fire.

water feature after fire

Summer’s height, 2014.

patio bed to water feature

water feature after recovery

Following the fire, garden-related businesses donated pots of annuals to bring cheer to the neighborhood. This generosity is honored by refilling the pots.

germs

Of course, we do a few elsewhere in the garden, too.

two tunias and a germ

Most of all,  however, it is the miracle of this garden rising with the phoenix of the wider landscape, both new and enduring.

sit here for hours

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What a blessing.

Homely: A Valentine

the old home garden

Sleeping Bear Oasis, where I garden before the flat corner lot.

Would it be a stretch to say you love your garden? It might frustrate you from time to time (OK, a lot). There may even be times you want to tear out whole beds. Start over. Walk away. Then, there are the moments you wrap your hands around a mug of favorite brew and take a stroll. You might bend to lift a flowery face or pinch away a browned leaf, but mostly you just look, even admire. This isn’t because there’s nothing to do, no weed to pull, no hose to drag. It’s simply because you want to visit, to be together with your garden.

You might grab your camera and snap photo after photo of the same greenly emerging bun, the same trio of lilies, the same burnished ferns that you photographed last week, last year, or the year before. Approaching plants just like the children you adore, you only wish you could say, “Smile for me, honey.” If you’re like me, you probably do say, “Oh, you’re so beautiful.”

“Most of us intuitively believe that the things we labor at are the things we love…” wrote Shankar Vedantam in Why You Love That Ikea Table, Even if It’s Crooked which aired on NPR’s morning edition on 6 February 2013. “What if… it isn’t love that leads to labor, but labor that leads to love?”

To pursue the question, Vedantam spoke with Tulane University Marketing professor, Daniel Mochon, about a phenomenon he calls the Ikea Effect. “Imagine that you built a table,” Mochon said. “Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your wife or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know? A shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you that table might seem really great, because you’re the one who created it. It’s the fruit of your labor. And that is really the idea behind the Ikea Effect.”

From a marketing director’s point of view, this effect is a great way to get people in the door. For every person who has ever struggled against criticism, Mochon says, “Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.”

Any gardener who has successfully pruned an overgrown red twig dogwood knows the truth of that.

In the business world, however, it turns out the Ikea Effect has a definite downside. It can cause a detrimental loss of objectivity. After laboring on a concept for a couple of months, the person working on the project or an entire company may fall in love with their idea and not see its flaws. It becomes a failed project, and time and money are lost.

To some extent, we gardeners are subject to the same failing. And I think we can turn it to our advantage.

Some years back, my old garden was suggested as a possibility for a garden tour. A statewide organization of garden clubs sent a representative from Denver to deem whether or not my garden was worthy. She came before I had a chance to do some planned maintenance, and I arrived home in time to see her standing in the mess, gesturing toward a brush pile near a chain-link fence, and shaking her head at the local garden club representative. My face and ears burned with a bit of shame and a dollop of anger.

broom in panorama

Deemed unworthy.

Here is where a gardener has a definite advantage over the Ikea Effect. For two truths were revealed that day: 1) An outsider declared my garden a failed project in business terms. She saw my garden through the objective eyes of one who had a certain standard, which my garden didn’t meet. 2) I loved my garden, anyway. My time and money were far from wasted.

I don’t only mean I loved my garden sentimentally (which I surely did). I mean I loved it by rolling down my sleeves, removing what didn’t belong, and providing what it needed. Even more, I loved it by seeing the uniqueness and beauty it offered, photographing it, and sharing it with friends.

I confess, I often think of the flat corner lot as homely. Budget constraints in time and money haven’t allowed me to fill it with plants and sculpt it with stones. Even so, I love it. Loving a garden transforms both it and the gardener. It allows the gardener to change definitions of beauty. When I look up homely in my German/English dictionary I find the word heimlig, which means atmospheric. The gardenhood cradles the atmosphere of home.

About a million years ago, I read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. His love-as-verb approach shook my romantic adolescent concepts of love to the ground. As the Ikea Effect — labor leading to love — jogged my memory of reading Fromm, l had to look up the quotation. He wrote, “Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissm. It isn’t a feeling, it’s a practice.”

Gardening, too, is a practice by which we come to love.

Home is Where Your Madness Blooms

on the line

Last summer, hanging a week’s worth of gardening garb out to dry, I noticed that some of the T-shirts were more faded on the back than in the front. Chuckling to my self, I thought, “You know you’re a gardener when this happens.” Quicker than the proverbial wink, the question followed: When did I actually know I was a gardener? Did it really begin when grade-school-me planted carrots in the sandbox outside the kitchen door?

Those questions sprouted into something tasty, like one of those beds of multi-colored lettuces. When does a person become a gardener? Are we born this way? Does some latent gene kick in when we’re exposed to grandparents bending over a zinnia or row of beans? Or is it environmental? Is there a virus that enters through the eye, under the fingernails, or in the perfume of a peony? How do you know you’re a gardener? What are the signs? Is it madness?

I’d been listening to my own true confessions on this obsession when I encountered a blog called PJGirl. There, I learned you just might know you’re a gardener if, after an hour of gardening first thing in the morning, you realize you’re outdoors in your pajamas. Madness delighfully confirmed.

Here we are. It’s February, and all the gardeners we know (in the northern hemisphere, that is) are swooning over seed catalogs or readying shelves and window sills for those little starter pots. We’re reading books, cleaning and sharpening our tools, sorting thorugh last year’s notes and photos. We’re pining for the smell of mud and can’t wait to come into the house with wet trouser knees. Is this how we know we’re gardeners?

Well, I’d like to find out.

Gardenhood turns two this week, and I turn 60, and the questions just won’t stop.

Today’s questions: Would you like to help me celebrate? Would you be willing to share your true confession? How do YOU know that you’re a gardener? And if you say you’re not, how are you so sure? (Hint, killing plants might actually mean you are). You’ll notice there are no qualifiers here. I didn’t ask you if you’re a real gardener, a talented gardener, or even a successful one.

Let me prime the pump with a few confessions of my own.

You know you’re a gardener when watching a movie — even a thriller or a stunning romance — you’re naming all the plants. Worse yet, you pause the DVD to get a positive ID.

You know you’re a gardener, when you get what it means to have a “gardener’s gap”. Moreover, you have a swath of tan there.

You know you’re a gardener, when you miss weddings, meals with friends, and your monthly book-group meeting because it’s May.

True confessions can be posted in the comment section, or if you’d rather, send an email to gardenhood88@gmail.com.

Thank you for two great years. May your madness bloom with joy.

Ephemeral: Two Weeks of a Watermelon Tulip

April Fools Day, 7:30 AM, she is a comely bud.

Within three hours, she is open for bees-ness.

For a week she opens and closes, keeping the sun’s hours, and then…

She ages with continuing grace.

Morning kisses her with mist.

She is showered with kisses.

She begins to undress.

A petal at a time.

Graciously.

Revealed.

Showing the way.

Tending the Soil

A Monday afternoon in late February, and the temperature on the front porch hovers just above freezing. Even so, a ring-necked turtle dove, ready to begin some spring-time business, has been calling all day, “Coo-coo-oo-cook, coo-coo-oo-cook.”. His isn’t one of my favorite birdsongs, and the urgency in his voice sets me a little on edge.

Oh, it’s true, I like the drowsiness of winter mornings and the spaces the season leaves on my calender, but I have to say, I’m not reluctant to leave this winter behind. It’s only that my sense of urgency is different from the dove’s.

His is all about being out there, above ground, and in the heat of making more of himself. Mine is subterranean.

I’m considering foundations. In life, I’m thinking about those stories I’ve told myself for just about ever, stories about unworthiness, limitations, and struggle. Those foundational thoughts, color my perceptions, and give rise to my crop of actions. I’m calling most of them into question.

When I transfer these current musings to gardenhood, I think about soil, soil being the foundation of the garden. Its content and pH color foliage and flowers and determine the proliferation above its surface. What’s above the surface in every garden gets most everyone’s attention, mine included. What’s below the surface, however, makes most of the upward show possible.

Turns out, that the soil on the flat corner lot is depleted.

Late last summer, right about the same time my family and I were getting Dad’s mind and body evaluated, I took a couple of cups of soil to the dirt doctor. She ran tests. She gave me the sobering results. She also gave me a prescription and sent me home with supplements and instructions.

Like the news about Dad, the diagnosis of my soil’s condition really shook me. I thought I knew my soil. I thought it was basically sound. It looked dark. It crumbled somewhat easily. I had assumed that a layer of mulch would invite the worms to dinner, and soon, the presumably adequate soil would be black gold. The lack of real knowledge about the soil and the holes in my logic made me question my gardening qualifications.

To my credit, I was more than willing to eat my humble pie. The competent soil doctor armed me with bags of stuff and a plan. One weekend, I dug all the plants out of a bed along the chainlink fence. I forked in compost and various supplements. I raked out clumps. When plants went back into the bed, their holes received a dusting of mycorrhizae.

As Dad’s condition declined, there wasn’t time to redo more beds, but in the remaining weeks before hard frost, I saw a marked difference in the vitality of the plants above ground. Walking past the bed, I could even smell the life of the soil. The raised surface of that bed has reminded me all winter about the goodness underground. The experience has been smoldering, transmuting the feelings of shock and embarrassment into visions of healthy soil.

Dad left his earthly life nearly four months ago. I’m reentering mine.

It’s a year to begin the productive areas of the garden, the spaces for beans, squash, tomatoes, herbs, strawberries, and more. Before the beauty above, however, there will be bounty below. In me as in the garden, I’ll take my time and tend the soil.

Comfort and Joy

Snow, at last, illumines the gardenhood. I went out before the sun rose to clear the walks. The sky, a deep Virgin’s blue, was crowned by the waning crescent moon. It was cold enough to give the air weight. Still a northerner at heart, I revel in mornings like this and seem to require one to fully awaken the sense of wonder, gratitude, and awe that dance in the holiday spirit. Carols and lights and the scent of fir trees help, yet there’s nothing like snow.

Jacket over hoody, thick wool socks and mittens, my heaviest jeans. By the time the mountain and spired conifers were gilded, work had warmed me through. Scrape, toss, scrape, toss – there is a lot of sidewalk around this flat corner lot. I stilled my shoveling often, changing postures, admiring the light and the sugar-fine comforter settled over everything.

How is it that crystalized air, frigid white powder from deep space, and back-aching labor give rise to a sense of well-being and delight?

“Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”

Indoors, Ed the arctic white cat, remains. He’s having nothing of this wintry weather and its shiny deposit. We slept like stones, me under and he atop three inches of down rolled out for the occasion. Instead of prowling the fence-line for thrills, he’s attacking the stuffed mouse, tossing, batting, pouncing, biting, rolling on his back and scratching it with all four paws. I admire his adaptability. He prefers expeditions beyond the backdoor. He also prefers certain temperatures and dry toes. He makes his own fun, finds the windows, kneads my lap. All, it seems, on his own terms.

Another lifetime ago, suffering from extreme seasonal affective disorder, the approach of Christmas sent me spiraling, and not upward. The pressures to be cheerful, to make gifts, to out-bake my mother-in-law all rode me hard. What I craved was quiet, intimacy, reflection, and beauty. What I engaged in was manic activity and too many well-fed conversations in overheated, brightly lit rooms.

In the year following my deepest depression, with all my body chemistry telling me to hunker down and my psyche wanting a cure, I chucked the baking and the gifts. Imagine the strangeness of such an abdication in a Christmas-crazed society. Well, desperate times call for something untried.

My hands empty and calendar clear, my bloodstream untroubled by sugar, I listened. The eternal theme of the season kept calling to me: the coming of light to a darkened world, hope to the darkened soul. I put on my snowshoes, and took myself into the mystery, the slumbering woods, the quiet. I trekked out of the comfort zone of making traditional merry and into the comfort that evidenced eternity, that yielded joy. My entire relationship to Winter and to its timeless holidays was transformed. I grew to love Winter and take comfort in the rest it afforded.

Now that I live in an urban forest, is it any wonder that I revel in a dark, snowy morning?

I confess, I still pressure myself to have a merry Christmas and contribute to the merriness of friends and family. I worry that I’ll spend the day alone, won’t get asked to parties and concerts, will spend too much money, forget or disappoint someone. Crazy, I know. Even worthless old habits die hard.

At least now I can do more than fret and compete in the “merry-thon”. I can wake up in the thinning darkness and, with a quiet playfulness, answer an invitation made by fresh snow out into the bleak midwinter garden to find shimmers of glory and glimmers of peace.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Blessed Solstice. Happy Hanukkah.

May you find comfort and joy.