October Rising

Anne reveled in the world of colour about her. “Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908

Do you feel it? The change is here – a frisson at the edge of the breeze, a turning of the leaf from green to red to gold, from lush to dry. Pumpkins running amok in fields and offered up on trailers at the side of a rural road.  Woodsmoke. A seasonal move from cotton to wool. Knitting needles. Socks. Autumn. Really big birds.

Honestly, this is one of my favourite seasons – ok, there are three more and that about covers them all. Autumn in eastern Ontario (let’s not call it The Fall – not this year of all years!) is when no permission is needed to be in awe of the beauty of plants, of pending change, of story. 

We begin to bundle up in familar ways to face the cooling days. This year however, COVID has added another layer to the ones we put on and it’s a difficult fit.  It feels like the freedom some of us had in working in a garden, spending time in the fresh air, will be severely limited with the swing of the weather vane and the north wind. 

North wind, eh?  Moving along, I’ll focus on the time being right for splitting plants and spinning tales. I like the botanical conversations that will continue from our space to another. The trail of a story about what the thing is, where it came from, how it got there, where it might go.

Dwarf irises, Iris pumila, came to us from a small acreage on a nearby rural route ten years ago.  A very full garden tempted us to walk in when we saw a sign, Perennials for sale – well! Pots were filled and instructions told – this is what worked here, it will work there and how.  Much appreciated.  Recently I divided the rhizomes as they had spread nicely on the edge of a bed and needed to find new homes.  They became part of a boxful of splits that ended up on a table at the local horticultural society plant sale recently – an exchange of plants in the company of others. A gleeful moment when my broad smile hid behind yet another new mask donned for the occasion.

Last week as the peonies went dormant, the garden fork came out again and after a quick split of tangled Peony rhizomes, Paeonia, voila – five potted plants for sharing with friends. A little bit of Mrs. B. went with them. Now, now, nothing suspect here, I meant her spirit. Mrs. B. was the head gardener in the family who lived here before we moved in and must have planted the peony at least five years before – now a mature plant about 25 years old!  I love the flamboyant blooms in late Spring and the dramatic drop of flowers and petals with the first rain – appeals to my romantic inclination. And so the new progeny travelled to the big city, to a local shop owner, to friends – a story continues. I’m eyeing the line of browning foliage now of peonies that need their annual haircut – a pruning back before the, gulp, snow.

Visitors always know they just may leave with something green when they come by for a conversation on the deck or a dinner in the garden (yes, yes, even now at an appropriate distance and peeking over a mask edge.)  Native Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum pubescens, were started here 15 years ago – a mere three wild plants had been removed from a roadside that was slated for development.  Now they gracefully circle two maple trees and in the spring a riot of white pendules bob from each plant – over a hundred of them.  An impressive growth habit for this beautiful structural, arching plant. Always fun to see them nodding through a back window of a car as it heads home from our driveway.  Note to self: always ask if the plants being so willingly given away, do they spread well?  Bugleweed, Ajuga, anyone? Here, this particular chapter of a story is always shared from gifter to giftee.

But today I stare at the fading beauties of this season through my east-facing window.  Down a stone path, far from the vegie beds, the last Oscar Peterson roses play a jazzy tune against Japanese Anemones, Anemone hupehensis, that stand tall on the breeze.  The purple and yellow audacity of a much-too-tropical Coleus brushes against the green boxwood, Buxus, as if to say “good-bye” after sharing space all season.  Annuals can make you downright emotional at the beginning of autumn don’t you think? Say no more.

I take the time to look up. High above this place, I see the great birds, Canada Geese in a distinct V formation – they rise with feathers beating against the chilling air.  They wheel and honk, lifted and drawn southwards by some ancient rite acting along their nerve endings.  Some may fall with a well placed shot.  But in the greatest triumph those flying highest and determined, divide the clouds and continue.

The overpowering feeling is farewell and fare well.

I split the plants, plant the bulbs and wonder.  Green will come again in its time and the feathers beating against the warming air will welcome in spring. I hope there are no more threats, I hope we all rise high and find a place to soar. Fare well.

Photo by TheOther Kev on Pexels.com

Simply Sempervivum

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Aristotle, 384–322 BC

Life is about the details – around us, above us and often, below us.  There’s something about a walk, say in a garden, where you just might question if it’s in the inherent physics of plants to make us stoop over a leaf or bloom and for an instant, get lost in the wonder of a growing thing.  We just may need to find wonder more and more these days – a fascination in the smallest of things or the value someone else puts on them. 

Case in point, I now have an obsession with Sempervivums.

Sempervivum!  Imagine a dirt encrusted guerilla gardener holding a trowel high overhead, balancing a few green gems in her other hand, and marching towards a drying landscape, a pot, or a boot. Ok, maybe too dramatic but this plant is a survivor – I like that.

There is such beauty in the structure of these botanic stars. Makes you think of geometric symmetries, Fibonacci sequencing, abstract art – plants often have a great way of distracting you from the everyday and I know we need that from time-to-time.

Naturally, there is a story. I grew up listening to my mum talking affectionately about “hens and chicks” and considered this a decidedly strange term, an oddity of another gardening generation. But when we found our home, there they were, succulent green stars tucked between stones – not quite twinkling but definitely in a northern universe of their own.  I was forever hooked. I now know that mum was enchanted by them too – obviously genetic.

Sempervivum means “always living”, so poetic isn’t it? The botanical name is the fundamental hint that these plants are survivors.  Also known as houseleeks, they’re succulents in that they hold water and will work well in sites that are drier than most and freely drain – hence the use in rockeries, among others. And if you really love them, you can even pot them up for indoor enjoyment.

One interesting history of the plant, and a possible source for the houseleek nomenclature, was a traditional use of tucking them between roof shingles to prevent lightning strikes, fires – apparently all things risky. Hmmm – have you read the news these daze? Might check to see if there is room on the roof for one or two or….?

Sempervivium insists that you slow your pace, that you bend down low and admire the myriad designs the rosettes make. There you can see how the chicks, or offsets, grow from the edges to form a mat or, when broken off, start a new planting on their own.

Offsets in the offing – and so the garden grows.

Like most plants, people seem either to love them or hate them. Did you guess I’m in the love camp?

There’s another perspective however. I know this as a former colleague once lamented about how her husband would pull them out of their garden and toss the small botanic packages over the fence . His goal? To remove their very offensive presence. Hmmm. Lucky neighbour methinks.

The flipside of this view was evident a few years back when we visited Enlgand. A friend and I, having not realized that Vita Sackville West’s garden was closed that day (note to self – check before  you wander), were redirected and headed to Great Dixter in Rye, East Sussex. Gobsmacked by the story of the place and the creative gardening influence of Christopher Lloyd, we wandered for hours – that magic pull of gardens and plants again! Eventually we stumbled on two young gardeners, maybe students, kneeling on a stone patio delicately placing what must have been hundreds of these garden stars as a planned design element of the garden.  It was magic, the interplay of soft colours making a living quilt in the slanted sunshine. And it didn’t end there, Sempervivums also popped up in crockery and between the roof tiles. 

Here, on a late summer day this year, I visited a local farm to buy a perfect bouquet from a gal who had adapted her retail activity when COVID limited the use of market stalls, to her floral enticements being offered up in a weathered barn. Around the edge of the building and along a path, there were the succulent beauties brimming out of an old boot, further down out of a shoe.  Magic again and oh-so-appropriate for hens and chicks.

Later this week, I’ll share a coffee with a local Lanark County Master Gardener who is known for her specialisation in succulents.  Friendships can form over green pursuits if you let them, and in so doing add yet another invaluable dimension to the scope of a garden. We’ll chat, compare pandemic pastimes no doubt, then root the conversation in tales about hens and chicks, stones and boots.

A small thing. A beautiful thing. Keep looking – maybe that’s just what we need now and anytime.

Growing a peopled place

And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Friendship is the invisible ally of gardens, either given freely or sought. 

Marigolds wrapped in a succulent hug

This weekend, a friend came by with a bright, tight bundle of French Marigolds, Tagetes patula. I know this was a special offering as she had grown them in a thick patch from seeds that another friend had given her.  And so we continue an unending circle of garden stories.

Gardens have a way of attracting people – all kinds of people – green people who have plants and stories to share.  I’m one of those now.  It isn’t unusual in the growing season for the end of our driveway to have a series of pots or cut flowers being offered free to a growing home.  Honestly, that’s the sign that I put up beside the offerings so that no one feels anxious when running away with one, two or three. Seeds are shared, plants provided, conversation ensues – often over years. 

Now that I think about it, it would be hard to leave this garden as there are so many footprints of others so well rooted here.  That sprawling mugo pine, Pinus mugo?  The first plant we put in when we bought our home – a gift of love from my mother. I prune it back each year it’s true, but gently.

The lilacs, Syringa?  Well, my gift to Pete of course so he could have sweet smelling shade to enjoy in future years.  That deep purple one?  A planted memory for a friend now gone.

The glossy mat of blue periwinkle, Vinca major? A spreading memory of another who was celebrating the adoption of her baby daughter.  Invasive?  Always risky but not here – it spreads slowly and is well managed by this gardener.

A welcome annual to wrap around a heart – Morning Glory

Those blue flowers scrambling up the wood support of the birdhouse, those lovely unending trumpets and heart-shaped leaves of Morning Glories, Ipomoea? Planted knowing they are loved by a friend now in the city.

Sharing could be as easy as someone coming over unbeknownst to us and planting something in on of our beds.  Guerilla gardeners. Right there, beside the small pond, I now have the dark leaves of the Leopard plant, Ligularia dentata, complementing the riot of day lilies, hostas, sedum and astilbe – it blooms a bright orange in this semi-shade garden and flowers later in the season.  That same friend also gifted me with a tall, stately Fairy Candle or Black Cohosh plant – a name much more interesting than Bugbane.  Did either one of us know the name of the handsome plant? No, it would take another friend, a horticulturalist, who came by and casually asked if I’d smelt the wonderful perfume of my Black Snakeroot, Actaea racemosa .  So much to learn!

A garden is not a place. It’s a journey.

Monty Don

The garden grows through the generosity of others. However, fair warning, that even friendship might go a bit too far when sharing plants that climb, clamour and root far and wide. Much like our Bugleweed, Ajuga, or as I should have known by the charming local name of Marching Soldiers, we realized after the fact that it had a rambunctious nature – but we learn.

The garden grows in spite of this pandemic year and offers up a space for repose. And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Lovely Ligularia offers dramatic leaf colour and shape

Foundations of this place

The property has become a welcome green hug in this time of pandemic and may just be the best distraction there is.

It’s raining today, yay!  I’m at the computer, staring out the window, when I’m pulled into memory of this place – and it’s green.

Green, in my mind, is about nature and gardening – cultivating land, community and story. Going into the green means developing an interesting relationship with something bigger than ourselves and engaging with a community way wider than our own reach.  It involves not just the big picture but the small, the pleasure of slowing down to meet the timetables of seasons, to pause and see.  It means constantly learning and being open to the experiences of plants and the people who tend them. 

It’s been 21 years since we moved here and I value the moments I can just breathe, focus on a season, a plant, a bird, or animal.  The property has become a welcome green hug in this time of pandemic and may just be the best distraction there is.  21 years ago we kept a wary eye on YK2, this year – well – we’re still waiting to see how the impact of COVID-19 will all work out.

2.06 acres on a corner lot and all with fine, green bones. After World War II, the original owners had purchased a larger lot of land – three sections in all – and over the course of a lifetime, raising children and working, they had planted.  There had been a calculating, creative gaze cast over the planting of this former farm field at some point and the map of trees, windbreaks, planting beds and garden structures were evidence of it.  Our land – or the land that we now inhabit – was the second home to this hybrid couple of Canada and England.  It was all quite amazing that it then passed into the hands of an urban couple who, at best, had grown four, maybe five, hostas in the suburbs. 

A large portion of the perimeter is a vast cedar hedge and provides privacy.  Maples – silver, sugar, and Manitoba – are also scattered over the land joined by balsam, spruce, and pine.  We were so lucky in those first years to find a young fellow in town who mapped out and identified all the trees for us, so we knew what we had committed to. Elm are slowly losing their foothold as the rot has set in. One tree lost to time, now stands, blackened, and twisted against the sky, as a macabre reminder that much can change. It will come down in its own time but not until generations of Flickers, squirrels – grey, black, and red, Pileated Woodpeckers and untold others have fashioned homes in the crags of this old snag.  Histories are so much better with feather and fur involved after all.

Lilac planted for a friend now gone – but still here.

Lilacs, white and shades of lavender, tell a tale of our time here and fragrance the air with stories to be told. Lilacs are my partner’s favourite flower and that very first spring, in the middle of a lawn, I planted a deep purple promise whose heavy blossoms now greet us every year. Others were added over the years. This summer we propagated from some of the parent trees to ensure their company remains with us well into time – oh, and of course to shape more gardens.   

Willows loom and shift with the breeze – they remind us of times when we were children and would run through streets with long, flowing wands of green. With the drying that will accompany climate change now and into the future, we know we may lose some of these trees over time and are beginning to succession plant saplings. There was worry when the extended drought and heat caused the silver maples to drop leaves and the trees overall put out so much seed that we found ourselves sweeping off the deck and surrounds in July. These trees are friends of ours – we hurt when they hurt and feel joy when the leaves burst through.  When our friends lost their leaves, we felt it in other ways too – the canopy cools the house but when depleted, the temperature rises for those below. This season though, August rains helped pull them and us through.

Add to this growing palette a house, a barn-shaped workshop, and a teetering glass potting shed, and you have a good idea of what we moved to.  The potting shed would be taken down in time before it sagged into memory and a pergola was put in place, the workshop was painted fire-engine red and festooned with a painted quilt block, and the house remains to anchor it all.  

Finding a green place is to begin an adventure and today a means to survive the long months of pandemic isolation.  Into the green we went, happy, expectant, and wary at the same time. 

The Scope of a Garden

A pandemic time is full of its own challenges, and unknowns, but add to it a long, dry period, well, the soul can take a dive no matter how much the mind tries to remain focused on what is known.

Welcome to my interpretation of what a garden is.  Beyond the blooms, shrubs, trees, and weeds outside, I see “garden” as a concept encompassing a creative life, interesting people now and then, daily musings, the challenges that lurk and the joys of everyday adventure and wonder.  Welcome to my garden and I hope we have much in common.

What a shock to know this thought has churned out in this COVID year when few really know what the future holds or how the present should play out.  Ah well, dive in!

Today is a green day.  Feels like a celebration as the recent rains which filled our barrels with hope, that have caused the grass and clover to return, has also tempered our moods – ok, tempered my mood.  Have you needed to find a focus everyday or have you structured in an order?  I’m finding that one plant might be enough to look at each morning and to wonder about the scope of its existence and place in a greater whole.  Sounds like a refrain from each of our own thoughts these days – at least with a plant, barring something unforeseen – oh like appropriate care – it has a pre-ordained cycle to follow which makes it wonderous!

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Case in point is this violet/blue water flower that surprised me this week – the leaves of this Common Water Hyacinth, Pontederia crassipes, in our small front pond (pondlet really) had me smiling as soon as I spotted it.  Also made me wonder how something so gorgeous could possibly be refered to as “common”.  Harumph.

A pandemic time is full of its own challenges, and unknowns, but add to it a long, dry period, well, the soul can take a dive no matter how much the mind tries to remain focused on what is known.

There was a whisper of water not far away.  It grew in gushes of relief as the clouds swept over the field in front of the house, a field where the silver maples were sighing as they gave up dried leaves. The time of the heat was taking a pause and there was a private celebration played out in every house, every heart.

Think of it as a massive mood broom sweeping away the cobwebs of temperature that clogged and claimed the brain.  A massive broom that put green back where it should be – on the plants, the grass, the soul.