Pandemic winter pursuits

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” -Cicero, 46 B.C.E.

All geared up for the pandemic winter?  Chilling by the radio, TV, or computer monitor listening to forecasts on pending vaccines?  Wondering why, oh why, the grocery store doesn’t have any broth on the shelves today?  And you know the garden will soon be under snow, and there’s ice, and maybe you’ll stay in today.

So what to do?  What to do?  How are you cultivating yourself these daze?  Many of you are still working from new locations – how is that view from the basement or kitchen table by the way?  And what about those hours in-between?  You know, when too much listening and watching the news of the world can really strip your nerve ends raw. When staring out the window, you suddenly roam into thoughts of COVID testing, roller-coaster stats and bigger, existential realms.

So let’s talk about winter preparations and attempting to ensure that our mental states regain a foothold so that reality is better navigated.  And since that eastern garden will soon be most definitely under cover for a few months…

Green pursuits on a page

…books! There’s a shelf of garden books nearby that looms with green pretension…er…temptations.   The covers catch the light and reflect a touch of guilt that I’ve not read them all yet. This is the promised land – that of broader garden knowledge and inspiration.  Or maybe just horticultural voyeurism.  Some of my books, save a chapter or two, have sat for years waiting to be perused. Is this the year? Possibly. No doubt the reading will accelerate as I count down again to the arrival of seed catalogues but it’s a good start to seed one’s knowledge when one can. 

Winter scene with topiary in Longwood Gardens
Longwood Gardens in winter

What about an online course – some free, some not – offering up a plethora of pleasure and, ahem, intellectualism?  For the green in all of us there are oodles of options from all over the world – check on websites – Longwood Gardens, Kew, etc. Recently, I treated myself to an online tea festival through the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton. Oh my.  I had walked tea estates years ago while working in Sri Lanka and admired the tea plants, Camellia sinensis, and knew there were a multitude of varieties globally.  Winter just may be a great time to dig further and to taste broadly. And did you know you could morph into a Tea Sommelier through courses at local colleges giving rise to a professionalism in sipping with style? Tisanes – those bewitching elixirs made from aromatic herbs, plants and roots – could be the beginning of a tea garden or a pot thereof, to plan for next year. Potentially exhausting – must be too much chamomile!

Oh and puzzles.   And boardgames. Did you know some have botanic themes?!? These were the grungy boxes that somehow always wound up at the cottage when we were kids. I particularly remember my mom loving a large puzzle that was mostly black-on-black except for two ballerinas dancing in the moonlight.  For some reason that has stuck in my mind.  Or that an aunt is famous for puzzling without referring to pictures – working along the colour edges to find the puzzle logic. It seemed a pursuit not suited to my generation but that was hubris.  In the sunlight that edged out from the grey clouds this week, I laid out a green cloth on the dining table to do a puzzle a friend had gifted me.  It was huge.  A 1000 pieces – way more that 999. And then, although it meant breakfast and dinner had to be eaten elsewhere, it entranced me –  it became meditative.  Not a bad thing – and then a day slipped away. Think of the focus I’ll be able to apply to garden planning…eventually!

What about pets? Four-footed companions are so welcome at all times but be aware, they can only take so much petting and oh my, any attempted conversation is way too often one-sided…especially if it’s about a food dish unfathomably empty.  Furgus, the great grey cat in this house as you may know, now walks the halls with us.  He keeps pace with our quick step or plod. He’s also gotten used to us picking him up to tuck him into a pile of something soft for the necessary thousands of naps in a day. He goes up and down the stairs when we do and stands by the door if we’re going out.  It may bolster one’s ego to think that something with such steely eyed focus on you is to be admired but trust me, it wears thin when he jumps into the puzzle box or onto your head at night.  Give the wee guys some space so they can work out new routines all of their own.  Too much petting may end up in a less than hirsute companion – keep an eye out for the omnipresent fur balls that dance around the house and lurk in every corner.  Hmmm. Might be able to use them in the garden to repel groundhogs?  Worth a try – now how do I catch those rolling little fluffbulls?

It’s a snapshot of a personal strategy for this pandemic winter.  I’ll worry along with the rest of us but am determined to plot a course forward, well rooted in personal cultivation of self and spirit, seeded with new knowledge from a diverse range of pursuits that will blossom fully, one hopes, in a better year.  And now if only the cat would sit still. Purrfect.

Awww – Furgus likes books too!

Betwixt and Between

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” — Audrey Hepburn

It’s an odd time isn’t it?  Deep worry about COVID yet hopeful about vaccines, the power of masks and distancing; hopeful about politics yet anxious about delayed transitions; transitioning to winter but staring at the green grass through the windows.  It’s a liminal time, a betwixt and between time – a pause requiring study through windows and without.

Interestingly, in this unique time there are new tools that allow a peek into someone else’s lived experience, for the view from a home window.  Window Swap and View from my Window evolved during lockdown on various platforms. My day inevitably starts with a long look out the dining room window, and as I’m as anxious as everyone else, I can understand the strange, voyeuristic enjoyment of seeing what others see daily.  In an odd way, these tools worked to elevate what could become mundane in isolation – affirming that we are still here and oh look, we’re not alone.  With travel severely limited, this might just provide a release of sorts and your carbon footprint is so much smaller too – OMG a double hit! 

So what’s beyond my window?  Well, you might not always see the beauty in this transition season but I think it might be another chance to use the word sublime -’cause, why wouldn’t you? 

We’ve woken to first snows here in eastern Ontario although nary a flake has stayed more than a few hours – yet.  Outside one window, not far from the computer screen that clamours for attention, I look outside and watch a ground ballet – flocks of robins and starlings, neatly spaced, pecking their way across the snowy lawn.  A hunt for seed and insects to help them on their way south no doubt.  And yes, the waves of geese continue above.   It expands the definition of the garden to encompass seasonal change, the ongoing work and migration of beasts and birds, the beauty of those plants now pausing. It is not about surrender and demise, it is about preparation for change.

An ongoing debate was whether or not to cut down the Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum, to tidy the space.  But honestly, tidy is not all it’s cracked up to be – let nature behave as it should. It demands a rethink, of paying attention to leaving organic materials in place both as shelter for bugs, food for squirrels and birds, and as ultimate nourishment for future plant growth.  For all kinds of good stewardship reasons, the plants will stay and desiccate over the winter providing shelter for all sorts of wee beings. For now, oh the colour that has been introduced is wonderful – somewhat like an impressionist brush heavy with yellow ochre. 

I notice the structure of the garden more – the solidity of the green frame in place that cradles us in trying times. Take note – when looking through the window or walking about though, fight the inclination to unendingly list all the projects for next year but rather slow down and notice the details today.

And there’s something wonderful about how plants hold each other in autumn. See the multiple mounds – even if I only planted three to start – of Blue Fescue, Festuca glauca, as they nudge up against Hens and chicks, Sempervivums; how the newly planted Red Osier Dogwood, Cornus stolonifera, sketches out a ruby web against the sky while it sheds green leaves; how the winter creeper, Euonymus fortunei, snuggles up against the Spirea while sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, prepares to die back under the leaves. Sure, the planting was mine but the poetry, well, plants have expression of their own don’t they?

A leaf on the grass

I’m thinking of a quote from Lorraine Johnstone in Tending the Earth – A Gardener’s Manifesto: “While each of us may be changing the world on coneflower at a time, the world of the garden is doings its own crucial work of changing us.”  This happens everyday, every season.  We have a plan and then suddenly, the garden shows us something unexpected, a movement, an unexpected beauty – a teaching. 

Hope quietly informs the day as I fall into this late season with all its trials and tribulations.  The next season will come soon enough but for now, breathe and just be betwixt and between. And with multiple windows at hand and online?  Well, all the better to understand the scope of the garden – yours, mine, ours.

The structure of a garden exposed

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.