Healing – focus on green

To explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it hope rises on its currents. 

Edward O. Wilson

Biophilia is a wonderful term that means we humans tend to make connections between ourselves and nature. The book by Edward O. Wilson in 1984 defined it as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.  Well, that seems right in this instance as I’ve been holed up until I felt whole again. Solution? Focus on green!

And it’s got nothing to do with the weather – nothing at all to do with the warning of possible “flurries” last night and a temperature plunge this aft.  In May. No, it’s more to do with recuperation from a most welcome knee surgery compounded by dancing around COVID and yet another lockdown – which may go on even longer. 

The good news? Without asking, my dear partner and friends stepped up and took care of me – it takes a village at all stages of life and I’m deeply grateful to the circle of humans in my life. And Furgus, our great grey cat, is no longer my constant companion – on my pillow, head or nestled at the bottom of the bed – and I take that as a good sign that I’m fine and recovered. No longer a source of feline, or human, worry.  Cats know.

From my recuperation room, I was spoiled.  I could look outside the window to see the maples changing day-by-day and look downstairs to see the seed trays with their increasing populations of stems, tendrils, and leaves.  Repotting has taken place – a wonderful way of getting upright and into normal again – and very soon, barring a spontaneous glacier age, many plants will be hardened off prior to a final move to ground.  I won’t worry about the ones that didn’t “take” – they just may need more time, asking to be nurtured a little longer, like all of us right now. Wait and see. Patience is a gift.

Outside, the rain drizzles down, continuing the seasonal magic of coercing buds on trees and shrubs to swell with excitement and unfurl one more time.  All around, green shoots – the best green of the year – are beginning to frame the scene like an impressionistic masterpiece dripping from an artist’s brush, the trees enclosing us all in leaves soon to dance on any errant breeze and I will listen to every story it has to tell. Bliss.

My mind happily wanders through the garden where we will, as always, spend so much time this year. Projection can be a saving grace on days like this although I did manage to edge one bed – a whole bed – just the other day. It’s a start and the others are no doubt eager for the attention to come their way.  In time, in time.

A look back – Helleborus in the melting snow

Down the mulched cedar path running away from the driveway to the mailbox, that marvel, the Helleborus, or Lenten Rose, is putting on a show. Here the leaves of the Helleborus are often the first declaration of spring as they peak out evergreen from under the snow.  I look forward to it each year even as the snow is still hugging it to its cold heart.  Interesting story – there’s a dark side to this enticing plant.  Hippocrates used it as a common prescription for treating insanity and it’s mentioned by other ancients as sometimes found in rituals of exorcism and the coercion of spirits.  Hmmm, could be a good year to explore the broad scope of plant possibility? Never you mind.  Just seeing those blooms burst out will answer to my need for a rebirth.

Time marches on, giving rise to physical healing and to an everchanging landscape. The scilla, crocus and snowdrops have blended back to the earth; the daffodils, grape hyacinths and tulips have taken hold; while alliums, lilacs, and peonies are about to declare themselves.  All this against the yellow glow of dandelions – the year’s first meal for every and any pollinator who wants to wing by.  Botanic pandemonium! Entrancing.

Biophilia.  Not just a hypothesis but a human necessity. Test it out, see if the affinity for other forms of nature fits you too – human, animal, insect, plant. Value those who help in these trying times. Snuggle up to a furry friend. Celebrate the longview when bees arrive. Stare for a ridiculously long time at a favoured plant…or even a plant to be. Walk under trees and feel the ground beneath your feet. For me, nature is pulling me back to myself. Is there any better year than this to claim the joy of continuity? Hobble on!

Masked in trying times

Winter solitude –

in a world of one colour

the sound of wind

Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese Haiku master

Forsythia holding up the season of snow

A patch of low sunlight wends its way through the bare branches of the Forsythia shrub outside the window – I’ll cut a few boughs to force blooms soon and seek some level of comfort. The lilac shrubs, and the maples high above, have buds swelling for future flower.  A heavy cloak of snow covers the bulbs deep in the soil, preparing to burst into daffodils, tulips and alliums come spring.  A quiet time in the garden?  Hardly.

However, the longer I stare, icy crystals mock me. My nose presses up on the window pane and eyes glaze as the stark white of a pandemic February taunts me. The very act of my breathing heats the window with fronds of frost – botanical fantasies. As if writing a cold line of seasonal dismay, tracks mark out where a fox has broken through the layer of snow on its way past the bird feeder. The grass is masked by snow.  

Masked. 

As this is certainly the season, along with a global reason, masking comes to mind. By now you no doubt have a suite of masks of your own:  handmade, elastic or ties, medical, thematic or corporate.  What about be-jeweled or embroidered or pieced?  And now, or very soon, you’re probably layering – three layers at least.  If not – why not?

Did you find it took a few days or weeks to finally feel comfortable with masks?  Did you ever? Do you find it only takes seconds now to feel uncomfortable if you’re without one?  I’m finding the wearing of masks at this time of year beneficial in unexpected ways – they keep my face warmer in this chilly, eastern Canadian landscape.  Masks make my eyes transcend mere functionality as they crinkle in greeting, or look longingly at some uncharted tomorrow, beyond a masked rim.  The mask gives a horizon to eyes bright with hope that we will indeed be recognized – true windows into our souls. They do however, fog my glasses when I need icy clear vision. Ah well.

No doubt there will be tomes written about how communities, nations and the great population of the earth, under threat of viral infection and transmission, against feelings of rights being abrogated somehow, masked in hopes of a better tomorrow.

And it’s happened before. We’re not alone masking in trying times. 

In 13th century China, as told by Marco Polo, serving meals to the emperor meant wearing silk scarves to keep the breath from changing the aroma and taste of the food. I wonder if I should try this as we continue in endless culinary experimentation during lockdown? Do leftovers warrant such care?

Between the 14th and 18th centuries, plagues were frequent in Europe.  In 1619, a physician of Louis XIII, posited that a mask made from boiled cardboard in the shape of a beak with two breathing holes and containing garden botanics such as dried plants, herbs or spice, would prevent infection. Hmmm, birds here might see me as competition for the seeds being put out each day – too dangerous.  And herbs, well, there’s always tea.

1918 – California rail station

The concept of a mask to protect, gained new ground in the 19th century with creations to minimize dust inhalation such as experienced by miners. When in 1861, Louis Pasteur proved his concept of air borne bacteria, well, that raised the bar for modern mask design and their usage today, yesterday and, yes, tomorrow.

Canmore, Alberta, 1918 Children off to school. Camore Museum

This pandemic period began with so many uncertainties but as knowledge grew, so did a niche market for masks.  Through the heroic efforts of neighbours helping neighbours by home-crafting endless offerings of face coverings; to friends and families offering protection to those they loved; to stores offering masks and sanitizer to customers coming in; to artists using masks as new means of creative expression; to myriad numbers of brand items and others online – we masked.

By the end of 2020, jewelers were commissioned to create what might be the most expensive mask in the world.  A $1.5 million dollar mask made of 18k gold and no less than 3,608 diamonds, including space to insert a disposable N-99 mask.  Tempting, but I worry that my gardening gallomping would loosen those precious gems as I planted, weeded and harvested this coming year, so, no.  Although I may find that a simpler mask, perhaps with a trowel stitched into a corner or a bold, cursive warning to an earwig, aphid, or blight, will help when tending to our plants or at the local garden centre or community garden.

Masked on a winter day

Masked.

I’m finding that those fine lines around my eyes are deepening – crevicing – the need to smile with one’s eyes etching time a little deeper.  And I’m saving money on cosmetics too – my perfection will remain well cloaked. But I wonder what other traditions will form? What fashion statements will follow us into the gardens and streets this spring and summer? 

For now, my mask is a belief that all will get better.  My mask tells you I respect you and your right to thrive.  My mask is rooted in history and yet, is temporary. 

The global garden we live and play in, that we were oh-so-familiar with, will come back in so many ways. In time.  Mask on!

James Naismith – masked in Mississippi Mills, Ontario

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

Thanks-be-given

The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude. How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

Here in eastern Ontario, Thanksgiving Day opened onto a cool, bright morning. The farmer across the road was bringing in the soy crop and we were treated to the dust of a good harvest wafting over the hedge, the sun dancing gleefully through the haze.  There is no Hallmark card for the moment. 

Pumpkins and gourds on table

Thanksgiving is my favourite celebration. No festooning of trees, no retail mayhem, no incessant saccharine music in every store.  There are no pressures of gifting except the most essential gift of time and companionship – easily shared. The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude.  How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

The shadows of this pandemic and political time were swept aside by the chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and blue jays on the feeders, by the perfection of a morning, by the choice we made to focus this day on the greater garden around us. 

The ways of sharing felt different this year – electronic pulses more than elbows nudging over a good joke. Early morning there was a crop of well-wishers on social media – the newer, electronic garden where words replace touch and proximity.  Only a brief sadness settled in when the distance between sender and sendee was thought about, even as we smiled at the 10 – 100 joyful words on laptop and phone screens. To be read and re-read again.

Sunny day with families safely distanced
Wood piles with hay and pumpkins

Next was a road trip to a local tree farm.  There pancakes were expertly flipped to order on the outside porch and maple syrup from this year’s arboreal haul was poured liberally – much to the delight of the small swarm of wasps entranced by the sweet temptation.  But no garden is without bugs, birds and blooms – they are all intimately interconnected. Children played on hay bales, flew through the air suspended on a line from one pillar to another to the delight of a puppy who stared and stared, parents stood by masked and sharing plans for the dinners they would have later.  We watched it all and warmed to the companionship of others – a garden of fellows on this holiday in isolated times.

We left with treasure stuffed deep into a paper bag – homemade jams and a huge bottle of local maple syrup, ‘cause knowing the maker just means a sweeter experience all around.  Three would be for friends – strawberry jam to a senior neighbour on the street who has treated me to tea and stories of a life well lived; Toe Jam to a friend who shares humour, politics and furry companions; and Middle Age Spread (lemon and orange) that waits on a sideboard for another who shares many adventures with us. Sweet delights to cultivate the garden of friendship.

Crystal vase filled with maple leaf branches

The dinner table – set for we two – was festooned with maple leaves on their woody stems placed just so in a crystal vase from my mum, now gone, while the meal was an amalgam of delights from local entrepreneurs.  It was a decision to fill the table with all that was tasty from those local business owners who have had to navigate this unique year in new and different ways. Roasted veg, garlic mashed potatoes, lentil loaf, hand pies baked resplendent with mushroom filling and turkey with stuffing. All this nudging up against red and green lettuce from our garden that keeps on giving even in the cooling air, whose leaves mark the plenty that was grown. And to end it all, a perfectly seasoned pumpkin pie from our local baker, complete with a pastry pumpkin placed precisely in the very centre allowing thick whipped cream to encircle it in a caloric hug. This meal was not the first where we celebrated the gifts of others, nor would it be the last. We raised a toast and gave thanks for living in a vibrant, creative community which will make it through whatever times are ahead.  

Throughout it all, each hour of this day, we thought of times shared with friends and family, so glad for those moments stored deep inside to be looked at and relived, whenever needed.  Our personal garden of memory and an appetite for more!

Painted signpost against a tree saying: Enjoy a season of change!

And as it must, so the day ended and the sun began to sink behind the cedar hedge in the west. 

The silver and red maples in front of our dining room seemed to stretch out each leaf before they tumbled to the ground in a glowing curtain.  A fitting moment, nature saying time is right to face a change in season and to be grateful for this day – this thanks-be-given day.

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

Seed for thought

We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have.

I had a wonderful coffee last week with a “green” friend which ended happily with us touring her garden. This was perfect as isn’t it the best of all things to nurture and cultivate a space then to share it in some way, or two? Bliss.

But what stopped me in my explorations were these dark, purply round fruit hanging down from withering late-summer stems in large pot.  Were they mini-eggplants?  This of course caused me a moment of real irritation as my eggplants had teased me all summer by producing gorgeous flowers and then…nothing.  But that’s another story.

That feeling quickly dissipated as knowledge was enthusiastically shared over a growing bed – a most excellent habit of gardeners! My friend introduced me to a Blueberry Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum “blueberry”.  Wow!  And that maybe, just maybe, it actually punched higher by weight than actual blueberries in antioxidants. What!?  When, oh when, does the global garden stop amazing us? I left with a small orb of possibility in my pocket – a mini-tomato whose seeds are being dried and stored for next year’s garden. A grand experiment on my part which got me thinking about the littlest of things that we share from our own gardens – seeds and neighbourly connections.

I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seed 1860-61

My first seed encounter was in the backyards of Montreal North where I grew up.  A culturally rich WWII community – immigrants from Europe and us, Canadian anglophones and francophones – all living in duplexes and triplexes overlooking yards where neighbours chatted in accented excitement over long wooden fences.  My mom loved that back balcony as it gave her the ability to watch over not just the two of us, my brother and me, but those neighbourhood gardens that rose from warmer climes and traditions.  They stood apart from ours with its one Maple tree and sprawling play area, as those other places were lush with a hands-on take on how to provide food for families. And roses.

In those gardens, the seasons would be marked by seedlings that had been nurtured through the late winter months, whose bright shoots were tied to poles in regular rows culminating in time to a tasty burst of harvest. A great botanical gathering gave rise to the rolling sound of wine casks emerging from basements and the aroma of tomato sauce thickening on stovetops.  Sauce that had a bold tendency to dance a quick step up the stairs, over the balcony and into our kitchen. Recipes followed as the fence-talk continued.

Once the cooking frenzy was over there was another domestic science experiment going on and it too rolled out in basements.  My neighbour, an immigrant from Italy, knew I was a curious kid and took me down the stairs to that family’s basement one perfect day.  There, spread out on brown paper, were hundreds of tomato seeds that had been sorted to type, dried and would be stored for next summer’s promise. The garden brought a curious community together, built on the experience of the past and kept in high regard the potential of seed – a knowing that my neighbour finetuned by observing year-to-year.

Seed is amazing. At the most basic level, viable seed means we’re ensuring the continuation of the wide variety of plant species and of global food sources.  Everything is held within the seed – an embryonic plant mapped by DNA, supported with protein and starch. Think about it – everything needed for the processes of germination, vegetation and reproduction is tucked into these distinct, botanical packages.  Along with that, we’re also saving the memory of people and plants we have known intimately as we sowed, germinated and waxed poetic about the plants outside.

Seeds and the importance of ensuring that our shared agricultural and botanical history – and future – are saved, takes place through our own garden seed saving from each season to the next, but on larger scales as well. Massive projects save seeds from all over the world such as the Crop Trust Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago – also known as the  Doomsday vault – or through not-for-profits like Seeds of Diversity in Canada. Mind-boggling.

When you save a seed, you save so much more than just a memory from last year’s garden, you hold a unique, biological being – a proto-plant in your hand.  Here life begins and when the growth cycle continues to a logical conclusion, the future is ensured by seed.

In the Book of Seeds, Paul Smith says: “For people, mastering the storage and manipulation of dormant seeds paved the way for agriculture and continues to determine the fate of nations.” We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have. Sounds a lot like hope doesn’t it?

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.

A harvest of crabby delight

You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

Like most of us in this pandemic year, we look for new pastimes – a means to find moments of joy in difficult times.  With the cooling of the season and yes, the turning of the first leaves to autumn gold and red, it means embracing a sense of adventure – one that mingles community with taste!

Case in point – crab apples, Malus.  This town, on the edge of wild, is home to many a crab apple tree.  Many are beloved. Most of the year, after the riot of spectacular spring blooms have faded, you wouldn’t even notice them but come September, well.  Red and yellow fruit brighten against the green leaves in private yards, lining streets, and on the edges of woodlands where their perfume bounces on the breeze.  A scent of – is it cider? – wafts down the streets and tempts passersby. You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

The immediate result here? We played! And right there, on our back deck, beside the painted red rocking chair, a large basket brimming with fruit from two crab apple trees, Malus ‘Dolgo’.

We hadn’t really noticed them until a gardening friend (thanks Allan!) sent an email suggesting we enjoy the bounty from trees he had planted in the community.  Sounded like a fine idea and we wandered over one afternoon eager for a harvest – although honestly unsure what the ultimate result would be.  

Did I mention we were new to this?

Must confess, we didn’t realize we were looking at apple trees at all.  In fact, we were convinced that the apple tree that we were looking for must be hidden behind these plum trees – so thick they were with small fruit.  It only took one bite to push plums out of our minds and to recognize the small, sweet-tart rounds of luscious crab apples! Fast forward – the basket on the deck.

Within the course of a few days, and a well-placed Facebook post, suggestions gleefully flowed for pies, dried fruit, applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly – all shared with the excitement of well practiced tastes.  This was rapidly followed by offers of hand cranked food processors, jelly jars and in one case, of an actual taste tester. The generosity of garden folk was so appreciated when we realized that this simple act of apple transformation into imagined winter delights was going to take some learning.

Now, somewhere in the depths of the pantry we had stored a box of canning jars. The idea had entered our minds years ago but over time the jars had become candles holders, impromptu vases, dust collectors. However, we did have a large pot, a hand crank food processor, and new lids. There was also the seemingly infinite reams of advice on the web, in cookbooks and through the freely shared experiences of friends pulled into kitchens by harvest delights.

These common apples, as they were once known, could have become so many things from jams to pies. But for us, through the shared experiences of those who succumb to the temptations of apples – move over Eve – we washed and we boiled, we strained and we canned. It was the best of times – who knew?

Now we smile to think that downstairs, on shelves tucked against a wall, the dark shadows obscure the rich red of crab apple sauce and crab apple jelly that wait to help us make it through winter, then spring. Once there, the lovely trees will bloom again, a cycle of green, and of friendship, leading us forward to the delights of new days – embracing the bitter and the sweet.

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.