You Know You’re a Gardener When… (take three)

The instant recognition of an old flame startles you awake.

Before you even hear that the crickets have stopped singing, you put a name to the face, and the memories erupt. The summer between high school and college. Intense conversations under cicada-droning trees. Riding the Greyhound through endless cornfields to meet his parents. The last time you saw him. Minneapolis. December, 1974. He agreed to watch your dog while you went back to Iowa. One night, he let her out, and she didn’t come back.

Of course, you look him up on the internet. The first eight links are to or about his work, now a photographer with a studio in a Vermont barn and a business that takes him around the world. Words fly at you from the screen. Led the pack, numerous awards, accolades, MoMA, teaching in the graduate school, and Chinese Government. Personal hints, too. Wife, kids, coach, soccer, beekeeper.

Holy catfish.

It was a silly thing to do, especially on a Monday morning with no billable hours posted on your calendar.

All through coffee and dressing and breakfast, a cascade of useless thoughts sends a wash of agitation through your system. How long you think you can keep up this house? How soon you going to lose that 30 pounds, dagnabbit? You can’t even get someone to flirt with you on a dating site! They flip like an antique TV screen gone haywire. They repeat like two bars of a stupid song. They swarm you like mosquitoes. You go running from the house.

You try cleaning the car, wiping all the non-porous surfaces with the foamy stuff you got from the guy wearing a pink cancer awareness ribbon under the canopy of the filling station. It works great, the foam that is. It cleans like nothing you’ve used before. It works until you get to thinking, “I’ll bet he never has to detail his own car, unless it’s an antique Porsche living in his Vermont barn, and he doesn’t let anyone else touch it.”

Enough. You abandon the 10-year-old Scion (forgetting it’s paid for, by the way).

To the shed.

You grab the digging fork (Vermont castings, circa 1985, mint condition) and work over the bed where the garlic flourished and the rose Finn potatoes made an attempt. You dolly heavy bags of compost and spread the contents — evenly, mind you — across the bed’s surface. Again, the fork. Worms, all sizes, wave at you from the soil. There were none when you first converted this sodded wasteland. With gloved hands, you break up the larger clumps. You, in your sixties, have built this habitat for earthworms, all by yourself.

When did the morning air become such a caress?

You spring up the back stoop to retrieve the shoebox full of seeds stored in the studio closet. From it you pull envelopes of potential. Wild arugula, red Russian kale, heirloom dwarf gray peas with bi-colored blossoms, and mâche. You line them up for a portrait.

Peas. One inch deep, four inches apart on either side of magenta-glazed wire supports, which look beautiful against the weathered cedar fence built for you by a dear someone who calls you his best friend. Kale. Two feet away, one-quarter-inch deep, eighteen inches apart. There are just enough weeks left to taste the earthy sweetness of these purple leaves. Arugula and mâche. Two shallow bands. Scatter. Pungent emerald sprouts should be ready about the time the blue spuds tumble out of the next bed over. Corn salad, the most cold tolerant of them all. You think it may get a sheath of frost-cloth later. Her nutty flavor finds its way forward to a November plate.

All in, you find enough pine needles to cover the lot.

Stepping back to admire, you can’t stop smiling. You know you’re a gardener when…

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Reigning Scents

In the evening, neighbors with strollers and pups on leashes come round the flat corner lot drenched in perfume.

The honey locusts are blooming. Tiny, round, olive green flowers high in their lofty crowns so sweetly scented, I could swoon.

Closer to earth, the rugged iris have cheered onlookers for a couple of weeks. When I was a kid, one of my guilty pleasures was sticking a wet finger into Kool-Aid mixed with sugar and popping said finger back into my mouth. It’s a memory evoked by the scent of iris.

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Inside the chainlink fence, three varieties of tall, bearded iris share the throne: Iris varieagta with her golden swords and grapey perfume; “Pagan Goddess” peachy, prolific, and subtly scented; and an unnamed variety from Deb’s garden, streaked with rootbeer and smelling of vanilla.

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Even closer to the earth, a bouquet of cloven pinks flirts with the golden leaves of Cotinus. Sassy devils.

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While perched on the corner of the rock garden, the bluest penstemon reigns with a stately aura, wafting a soft tanginess somewhere between fresh mown hay and sorel. Hers I would wear dabbed behind ears and in the hollow of my elbows as I drift off to dreamland.

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There to dream of meeting someone as primitive, as sophisticated, and  as cleanly scented as a tree peony, but much less ephemeral.

Returning

From the center of a clutch of undead and pirates standing with open sacks on my front porch, she chimes, “I’m a princess.”

She takes two fun-sized sweets from the basket. “I see! What is the name of your country, Princess?”

She buckles her brow while the others dip into the stash. “I’m dressed UP as a princess,” she says, unbuckling.

“Oh, I understand. I’m dressed up as a grown-up.”

She buckles up again before turning with the others, chorusing thank you down the walk.

Thus begins the fourth year in the gardenhood.

I could have stayed longer in Switzerland. My welcome was robust, and I was so at home. And yet, when I made my travel plans last summer, I wanted to be back by Hallowe’en. I’m happy feeding the goblins.

Last year, the porch was dark. I took the bag of treats to my dad’s house. My brother answered the door. I’d spent half the day planting tulips, narcissi, crocus, and lilies in a new garden. Or was that the next day?

A crew of painters worked on the trim of the portales framing two sides of the garden. One of the young men listened to his i-phone, the 1930’s sound track to The Wizard of Oz. “If pretty little bluebirds fly…” Uncanny. I remembered Dad telling me what a crush he had on Judy Garland. Dad was big on beautiful girls.  A storm was blowing in.

The year before that, I had to put a gate across the studio door. Willie the terrorizer was definitely against the idea of ghouls and toddling bunnies at the front door. This year, the flat corner lot is spooked by Edward the Handsome, a pure white cat, his sea-green eyes pale in twilight. I don’t remember if Ed hid from the begging mobs at Dad’s door last year. Last night, however, he curled and closed his eyes on the futon.

To say Ed is happy I’ve returned from Switzerland wouldn’t be a stretch. He’s spent the last two nights curled up against me in bed and breathes easy now in my lap, head bowed, ears still, answering my slight movements with tiny grasps of his huge, polydachtyl paws.

While I prepared to depart home for home, Sandy blew up the East coast. Friends on both sides of the pond worried about my flights. There was little room in me for angst as I filled my senses with final views of the village I love. Still, in thoughts that crackled like static, I wondered how new blogging friends, Kevin and Donna, were faring. Last I heard, long-ago sweetheart, Les, was living and golfing on Long Island. High school theatre comrades, Erik and Susie, pursued their dreams in NYC. Was everyone safe? How oddly grounding to have my thoughts returning to these people never-seen or last seen forty years ago as the hours droned by and the plane chased the sun to Chicago.

I’m just about 40 hours back in the gardenhood. Leaves cover lawn and beds, collect in small drifts by the chain-link fence, a perfect haunted look for celebrating the supernatural.

I’ve dragged the hose all around, run the duster over the creaking floor gathering up Ed’s generous offerings of kitty down, unpacked my suitcase, and sorted all the contents. I’ve answered all the emails, generated a few more, filled out my mail-in ballot, and paid my bills. With business taken care of and vampires plied with candy, some not-yet-returned part of my consciousness believed I would wake up this morning under Mucca and Maria’s roof. Like Griffin in Men in Black III, parallel universes converge and separate behind my eyes.

The not yet returned part of me expected to wake up here this morning.

The gardenhood waits for my integrated footsteps.

While part of me still walks here, behind Maria and little Anna-Lu, having just bought 6 loaves of fresh bread from a farm an hour’s walk through woods and pastures.

Admiring Mari-Ursla’s work.

Mumala and Anna-Lu under the fig tree in the last of summer’s sun.

Mo sccots to join them.

Stones garnered from wet places, the colors of fog and glaciers.

In the gardenhood, dry-place stones.

Nebbelmeer, a sea of fog, closed the sky over the valleys, but left the mountains in glory.

Rain.

…turned to snow.

The village disappeared from the rest of the world.

Barely visible beyond the gardenhood, the foothill neighborhood of last summer’s fire.

The newly homeless from Sandy’s wake, like those from the Waldo Canyon fire, sleep in so many hotels, spare bedrooms, and livingroom floors, certain cells of their being wondering where they will awaken. Where does a dream end and life begin?

By grace, no trauma has tossed me home from home. I’m returning by dreamy, gentle stages to the gardenhood. Yes, and though my costume is downy from a lap-full of cat, I’m still dressed up as a grown-up.

Quietly Turning

It rained on the flat corner lot. It rained from before dawn on Wednesday and well into afternoon. It rained slowly, soaking parched soil without overfilling it.

While it rained, I checked things off the indoor to-do list. Each check energized me. While it rained, I played in the kitchen. I roasted beets, yams, onions, and garlic and made a golden soup, the first steamy bowl of this new season.

A golden beet, a carrot, a handful of Sun Gold tomatoes, and chunks of roasted turkey simmered in “Morga”, boullion brought to me last Summer from Switzerland. When the vegetables were just tender, I stepped out in the generous rain to snip leaves: chives, parsley, basil, rosemary. Over the pot on the stove, they were further snipped into bits and fell into the saffron brew.

The few tomatoes, which only formed after the horrendous dry heat of mid-Summer, slowly ripen. Potatoes and onions yellow then fall one-by-one. The native and heirloom beans I planted in May and replanted after the hail in June waited for cooler nights to flower and fruit. We have that in common.

Next week’s weather forecast says “dry.” Mornings will be crisp, afternoons deliriously mellow. The beans have plenty of time to mature, and I can let my own seeds plump, turn starchy with food, and harden into polished plantable dreams.

Out near the room-sized cotoneaster, the sprinkler is quietly turning, arcing rainbowed drops on soil still open from Wednesday’s rain. Like a dervish, I’m turning, too, gathering a centered sense of union and awakening visions. I love the lack of frenzy that Autumn brings, both to life and to the garden. It opens me up to the new.

First, Plant Dreams

I gave up competitive gardening.

That’s how I describe the continental drift in my attitude toward my garden. This has nothing to do with how hard I’m willing to work, nor how long. It has everything to do with how I want to feel. Here, at home, I want to cultivate calm, a sense of spaciousness in which to wonder and observe, an invitation to relax, a measure of delight, and an honest welcome. Yes, and I want to plant food. I might die doing all this, but I certainly don’t want to kill myself over it. You can appreciate the difference.

Before, when I was in the middle of making the previous garden, I wanted to create a landscape that set standards, that shouted “This is Colorado!” I wanted outrageous beauty, a stellar collection of unusual plants, wild success, and the admiration of others – especially those others who know a great garden. At times it seemed I would have died for this.

In 2007, a week before the Fourth and heading into what was bound to be the most brilliant lily season yet, that garden was shattered by hail. Already exhausted, my heart broke. I had to photograph the destruction, and then I couldn’t look at it for many days. Entering that grief, embracing the suchness of the garden in shambles, undid my mooring and set me on my current course. 

Now, having docked for whatever time I’m here, I want to fit in and still freely express myself. I feel no sense of contradiction, no restriction other than practical ones, well, like money.

So what’s my plan?

Everyone has asked me. The most honest answer: I don’t know. This is such a new approach in such a different venue, that I can’t know. But I can discover.

When I moved in, the long parking median on the south side of the lot had once been converted to a flower garden and had been let go. Alright, that’s too kind. It was derelict. I didn’t even know it was a garden at first. Comprised of just over 900 square feet, I figured it was garden enough for my first year. I would clean it up, divide the huge colonies of iris, throw in giveaways from other gardens, and cast a few seeds. Oh, and the empty planter wrapping the southeast corner of the house could be made into an elevated rock garden. Simple enough. As to the rest of the place: I’d buy an electric lawn mower.

About a year ago, I started deviating. Looking out the window of my studio, I could see a rectilinear theme with shrubs and peonies and no rocks nor junipers (though I love them) and everything in shades of red, coral, and creamy yellow. It persisted in getting my attention. So I smothered the front lawn.

In mid-summer, while mowing the back yard, I yearned for a table under the awning of the crab apple. Never mind the huge brush pile from all the dead limbs and weed trees I had cleared and tossed in the center of the yard. That would all be gone someday. As soon as I had a table, there would be meals and friends and wine. It would be just like back gardens in Switzerland, full of leisure and laughter and linens. I extolled this dream to my friends, who all had great suggestions. Then one dear heart, downsizing her patio furniture, made the dream come true. One shining night, under a full moon, we planted the dream of many shared and pleasant meals right under the crab.

No place to store it for winter, the table has stayed put. When I look out from the window over the kitchen sink, friends always surround it.