Under The Catalpa Tree…

Travelers between Calais and Paris must surely have noticed the lumps and clumps darkening like magpies’ nests the many neglected-looking strips of trees along the railway line in the North of France.  Perhaps the neglect is deliberate; perhaps they pay a good dividend.

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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The one and only catalpa tree in our neighborhood sits by our sidewalk.  Belonging not to one individual but rather to the entire City itself.  It is somewhat neglected yet it continues to flower and thrive year after year.  Perhaps neglect is all the better for it.

It was a great surprise as I rounded the corner on my morning walk and was greeted pleasantly by its white orchid-like frills.  A happy sight, as it looks like a tree belonging to the wild tropics rather than our conservative state of Michigan.

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Rarely do we see trees flowering in June, but the Catalpa shares with us its blooms; throwing them down for weeks.  They send a fragrance of rosehip and honeysuckle floating through the humid air as you pass, and when the flowering is done, its seeds appear. Like giant vanilla beans, they hang and dangle until they too eventually fall, hoping to spread the fruit of their mid-summer labor.

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A tree with many good qualities indeed.  Their fragrant, deep blooms make for a fun hiding place for the little fingers of children.  A canopy of huge heart-shaped leaves provide a hiding place for animals during rain storms, and the wood is resistant to rot, making it the perfect material for railroad ties.

Every year, I can’t help but wonder why I do not see more of this unique tree growing in the park or elsewhere?  I have not the slightest clue as to the origins of this one specimen.   I’m wondering now, how it came to be? Why on earth was it planted that close to the sidewalk but just off the property line of our neighbor’s?  Was it planted deliberately or did it seed there by accident?  It really is the only one I know of in this area.   Perhaps I haven’t been looking up enough.  Perhaps we need to plant more.

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The Art of Conversation…

…Poison has done its work only too well.  In what agony, during the dark hours, have these miserable members of God’s Creation perished?

-Vita Sackville-West
In Your Garden; 1958

I panicked when I saw the caterpillar damage on my rose bushes.  Easily distinguished by the large chucks of green taken from the leaves.  They came in flocks in the springtime and had their feast, leaving only a skeleton of foliage in their path.  Before I knew what was happening, the damage was done.  I wasn’t listening very well.

I sprayed with an insecticide but it was too late, many of the leaves had perished.  But with the catapillars gone I welcomed a new problem.  Variagated leaves, speckled and discolored, this malfunction left me distraught as all my research seemed to point to only two conclusions:  A vitamin deficiency, or a dreaded virus.

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Through these symptoms my roses had found speech.  But what were they trying to tell me?   What warning were they struggling to present?

After an inconclusive internet search, I took the leaves up to a couple nurseries.  One group of ladies told me it looked like a fungus.   Another told me it was probably insect damage and to keep spraying.

But who to believe?  I went ahead and bought the recommended fungus remover and a soaker hose as it’s really the only way to water new plants in this drought.  But I bought one more object to satisfy my own suspicion: a pH meter.  

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I had my suspicions; an intuition if you will, that if I fertilized perhaps all problems would be solved.  I’ve noticed the blooms have decreased greatly since spring.  Also a sign that it’s a vitamin deficiency.  Roses like an acidic soil and as you can see I have very low acid levels.  In the spring I gave them all a slow release fertilizer but I don’t think it is working fast enough.  So I’ll give them a little ‘snack’ of miracle grow throughout the summer and next year I’ll mulch with some manure to increase the nitrogen in the soil.

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It’s a grand experiment really. I have no idea what I’m doing as I’ve never dealt with inconsistencies before.  So here I am, yet again, learning something new. Yay!

One thing the roses are telling me is that their new growth is healthy.  This is a great sign.  To me, it points to a pest problem; an easy fix.  All other symptoms however, seemed a mystery,  and perplexed even the master gardeners with which I spoke.  But in the world of gardening, everything is learning by doing.  You have to be a detective and listen to the plant as well as your intuition.

As summer progresses, I’ll see if there seems to be more damage but I’m hopeful it’s not a virus.  If it is, God forbid it, I’ll have to rip out all my bushes and burn or tie them up in plastic bags, then I would have to replace all the soil before planting anything new.  Total buzz kill to summer’s euphoria.

Listening is precisely why gardening is an art form.  There is an art to listening; an art to conversation.  Coming up with a response that is both wise and applies directly to the point.   One must listen well because plants always have something to say.  If your plants could talk, what would they tell you and how would you respond?

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A Peculiar Fight For Turgidity

The tame, too smug, I cry;
There’s no adventure in security;
Yet still my little garden craft I ply,
Mulch, hoe, and water when the ground is dry…

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1948

 

 

The other day I was looking up odds and ends when I came across a word I have never heard.  It’s a word that has been rolling around in my mind for days as we are in desperate need of it.  Turgid, or swollen in reference to plants means they have a healthy amount of water hydrating their cells.  Imagine a plant whose leaves are plump and stand upright they way they ought to.  That is turgidity.

Yesterday, I did something rather peculiar.   It hasn’t really rained here for weeks and the trees are beginning to droop.   Everything is looking rather dull and dry.  Even my precious maple my husband planted as my Mother’s day gift is looking sad.

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Anyway, I was doing my daily watering of the garden when it struck me how dehydrated my neighbor’s lilac bush looked.  Its bright green leaves had lost their luster and they drooped and sagged with drought.

My neighbor rents.  They keep to themselves mostly.  We hardly speak.  But through my keen observation I know they rarely look at that end of the house.  They do the bare minimum to take care of the old plants surrounding the property.  Funnily enough, the rose bushes and iris’s looked quite healthy and turgid, but the grand lilac bush of many years was struggling.

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(Above: My neighbor’s neglected rose bush rests its arm on their old meter.)

A thought came to my mind as I stood watering my own plants, and a sly smile creep upon my face.  Stealthily I crept over and threw my hose under its dehydrated branches – turning it on full blast.  I left it there for a moment while I meandered about, falsely pondering my own precious flowers.

Despite my efforts to be cool however, I imagined her watching my every move from her kitchen window wondering what the hell I was doing, and wishing I’d mind my own business.

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(Above: My neighbor’s lilac the morning after I gave it a douse of water.  As you can see it could use a little more.)

But I believe her lilac bush is my business.  It’s all I see out my kitchen window and its large green leaves distract from the poorly painted black and white motif of their asbestos siding.  I thought for sure it might die and they would neglect to tear it out for years – leaving it in the ground to rot and turn brown; much to my sorrow.
I refuse to look at death out my window when I can prevent such a disaster.  So I must utilize the hose and sprinkler for now until the rains come again.  Bring on turgidity please!!

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Spiderwort or The Unfortunately Named

It is sufficiently remarkable that a great and powerful noble should have accepted so frank a criticism from a peasant, little more than a child.  He was more accustomed to see such people tremble in his presence.  Such impertinence must have taken his breath away.  Besides, it attacked him in his most private feelings.

-Vita Sackville-West
Saint Joan of Arc; 1936

I like to learn things.  A “natural curiosity”, as my Grandma calls it, will keep one from being bored.   In fact, in my house, the word “bored” is considered a bad word.  It strikes me right to my core when my children say they are bored, because all that means to me is that they haven’t yet learned the ability to entertain themselves or they themselves are boring.

We have spiderwort plant growing behind our fence, completely neglected.  It was growing there when we moved in and we left it.  There was not much we cared to do with that plot of land anyway.  It is a scraggly, sloppy looking thing.  It just hangs there with its electric blue flowers that only seem to minimally dot the green foliage from afar.  I never thought much of it, in fact, I’ve always observed it as an ugly plant.  But as I’ve learned many times in life and in the garden, it is easy to make enemies of those we don’t know well.

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So let us get to know the spiderwort a little better, and perhaps from now on the sight of it won’t aggravate me.  We will perhaps satisfy our natural curiosity in doing so…

The unfortunately named spiderwort actually has many good qualities, and it has proved itself a very useful plant for centuries.

The word ‘wort’ originated in Middle English.  Middle English; think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  ca. 1343-1400

“Whan that April With his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr…”

I could read Chaucer all day but alas, we must continue with today’s acquaintance.  The word ‘wort’ applies to plants or herbs used for medicinal reasons.  The root of the spiderwort are used as a laxative.  Brewed into a tea, they will help with numerous stomach ailments, including kidney pains and “women’s complaints”.

Its flower, the electric blue stars that smile with yellow stamens, can actually be eaten.  I can imagine it used as a decorative edible garnish for a summer dinner party in the garden. The sun sets in the background as your glass of Sauvignon Blanc politely sweats in the warm summer night air, while you get the pleasure of studying solely this flower at close range.

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Perhaps while you’re at it, you’d like to use its tender young leaves in your salad?  Yes, you can!   Forget the romaine, walk a little further to that forsaken plant round the corner and pluck some leaves to add something a little different; texture or otherwise.

Speaking of its leaves, the larger ones contain a mucus that can be used as a healing ointment.  This is also where the word ‘spider’ comes from.  If you tear a single leaf, this mucus-like substance will thread and stretch just like a spider web.

Well?  What say you?  Will you look on with disdain and turn your nose up at the spiderwort?  Or have you gained a new appreciation because you’ve gotten to know it better?   Personally, I’ll take the later response.  From now on it will remind me of the days centuries ago when Chaucer wrote of the great pilgrimage, and Middle English reigned in the world of literature.  Perhaps the peasant is the noble one after all.

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The Daylily: “The Lord Loves A Working Man”

They used to be regarded as a common old plant, almost a weed, when we grew the type which spread everywhere and was only a pale orange thing, not worth having…

Now there are many fine hybrids, which may come as a revelation to those who have not yet seen them.
They will grow in sun or shade.  They will grow in damp soil, even by the waterside if you are so fortunate as to have a stream or a pond in your garden, when their trumpets of amber, apricot, orange, ruddle, and Venetian red will double themselves in reflection in the water.  They will grow equally well in an ordinary bed or border.  They are, in fact, extremely obliging plants,  thriving almost anywhere.

-Vita Sackville-West
The Joy of Gardening; 1958

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I was more than a little distraught yesterday as I looked about my garden and nothing seemed to be blooming in abundance.  Abundance enough for me to cut a few flowers to use as a center piece for my Father’s Day table.   The Lilacs, I know, appropriately bloom on Mother’s Day.  It’s an easy find because I wait all year for those purple fragrant blooms.  But what for the father?  The roses have taken a little break it seems, and the hydrangeas are not quite there.

Without hope, I rounded the forgotten east corner of our yard and spotted them.  The orange trumpets that live but a day.  I’ll admit it was probably the first time I rejoiced at their sight.  They are too often forgotten by me.  A third rate flower as they seem in my mind.

However, I saw them and remembered years past when I, newly married and exhaustingly playing “Suzy homemaker”, would cut the blooms to beautify my table setting before the flowers shut themselves up for all eternity.

Seemed a waste of energy really.  I almost resented them for their lack of resourcefulness.  But that is nature, it often doesn’t make sense but it is miraculous and awe-inspiring all the same; to exert one’s energy and strive for perfection for just a day; for just a life.

In many ways we are like this.  Preparing a meal for the entire family for this day: Father’s Day past and present.  Us, the hosts and hostesses of the world; exerting all our energy and striving for perfection for just one little party.  Or rather it is like the father who works hard everyday so he can provide for his family.  Is that living?  I say yes.  Perhaps that is our only purpose; to exert and exhaust our energy for one eternal goal: survival for all.

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By our old house on the lake, daylilies grew in abundance.  So much so, that now, I truly believe if you hold one of the orange trumpets to your ear you might just hear the sounds of motor boats, jet skies and crashing waves, or perhaps the call of the kingfisher and the wings of swans as they flap across the sunset with their reflections below them.

So with this memory, and a new found appreciation for their hard work, perhaps I will rethink my forgetfulness.  I fixed myself a small bouquet; a rather handsome collection, much like our hardworking fathers.

I have a new appreciation for the Daylily today, like a new appreciation of a father whose obliging qualities are gradually recognized by their ever maturing children.  It is an obliging plant after all.  So, I’ll leave you now with the words of my own father who announced this wisdom as he went off to work every morning: “The Lord loves a working man”.

Indeed he must.

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Of Honey Bees And Red Clover

I loathe bees myself, one single sting sufficing to send me to bed, quite seriously ill, for nearly a week.  Yet I must admit to a romantic feeling for this self-contained world of little creatures, with their extraordinary arrangement of a life entirely their own, but at the same time, dependent upon what we elect to grow for them.  We cannot all grow wide acres of clover, nor can we compete with honey from Mount Hymettus in Greece, which is the best in the world…

 

-Vita Sackville-West
A Joy of Gardening; 1958

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(Pictured Above: Our hive this spring.)

When I was a little girl, my friends and I used to pick red clover during recess.  We’d pluck the little petals one by one an suck the sweet sugared ends dry.   We would giggle and show others what to do, and when the bell rang we’d toss the spent flowers on the earth to seed for future generations.

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Both the white clover (see in my post yesterday in An Ode To The Innocent Ones ) and the red taste sweet, but it is the red clover that we coveted most, and it is the red clover that is pollinated exclusively by honey bees.

When my husband and I harvest our honey in the summer we are collecting clover honey.  Clover honey not only tastes better than Fall’s harvest, which is primarily from the goldenrod flower, but it also will never crystalize with age.  Instead, its color will remain bright and shine like gold like it did the day you poured it.

SONY DSCAbove: Freshly harvested Clover Honey (Left), Freshly harvested Goldenrod Honey (Right)

Yes, it can be dangerous.  My husband has gotten stung a couple times in the two years we’ve had bees, but for the most part, they are a gentle group.  If you do some reading and research and know your place, you’ll be alright.  Beekeeping is truly an equally fascinating and rewarding hobby.  It takes but a little amount of money to start a hive.  About $400 or so will get you all the supplies you’ll need and the bees, but you will be richly rewarded in forwarding years never having to invest another dime.

SONY DSCAbove: Candles we’ve made.  My hero General Chamberlain looks on, acting his regal self.

Do consider starting a hive.  We need more bee keepers! We need more bees in order to live.  For instance, without honey bees we wouldn’t have clover at all, and I wouldn’t be here telling you how when I was a little girl, when I feared neither danger nor death, I pranced about in a field of clover delightfully sucking the sweetness out of life.

An Ode To The Innocent Ones.

Strange were those summers; summers filled with war.
I think the flowers were the lovelier
For danger.  Then we lived the pundonor,
Moment of truth and honour, when the bull Charges and danger is extreme…

…Strange little tragedies would strike the land…

…when wrath and strength were spent
Wasted upon the innocent…

-Vita Sackville-West
The Garden; 1948

 

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Clover is indeed an innocent plant.  Innocent as the children who gather it, innocent as the ones only looking for that lucky mutation; the four leaf, which will grant security in all its forms, and equally as innocent as the ones only seeking love and friendship.

One afternoon, on my walk, I came across a field of clover in the park.  Its cream colored patches smiled and blotted the green with different shapes and patterns reminiscent of the gardens at Versailles.  This beauty struck me, perhaps more so, because I found my neighbor sitting in the middle of one, while her daughter pranced about making a bouquet of the little flowers.

With innocence abound, its beauty was enhanced all the more.  So I took some photos before the dreaded mower, or the landscaper’s guillotine, with his ignorant blade of precision and correctness destroyed my view.

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Perhaps it was all the lovelier for danger.  Life is the same, when danger feels close and fear reigns, little reminders of beauty and innocence can indeed be all the lovelier to behold.  In times of war, we should seek not to remember the destruction and destroyer, but instead strive to remember only the innocent ones and their smile.

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Dedicated to the innocent ones of the Orlando tragedy.