Monday, March 23, 2009

The Garden Saved My Life

What I enjoy writing about most of all is what happens to us when we garden—how gardening changes us, shapes us, teaches us, gives us gifts we could never have imagined. In “Garden Retreats” I wrote about creating an outdoor sanctuary; in “Married to My Garden” I wrote about my love affair with gardening; and in “Garden Muse,” my weekly column for the Portland Tribune, I often reflect on how the garden is a source of great joy and inspiration.

So I’m thrilled that my personal essay, “The Garden Saved My Life” was just published in a new anthology, “The Ultimate Gardener,” in the section aptly titled Garden Transformations. For it’s the transformative aspect of gardening that I’m especially interested in these days—how the garden heals us, comforts us, and takes us out of our small everyday selves into the bigger soulful part of our nature.

The stories inside The Ultimate Gardener will inspire you, make you laugh and cry, and bring you new ideas about gardening. You can order the book on line and find it in many bookstores. I’ll be signing personalized copies at upcoming events this spring and summer. If you’d like to receive notices about dates and places, just let me know and I’ll e-mail you directly. The book makes a perfect Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Birthday or Anniversary present.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Kiss the Ground

I just returned from a visit to the east coast and now I want to kneel down and kiss the ground here. First of all, our gardens are green with grass and OK, maybe weeds too, but still green is everywhere—Doug Fir, pines, spruce, hemlock, Japanese incense cedar, eucalyptus, evergreen viburnums, daphne, sweet box, boxwood, box honeysuckle, Senecio greyii, Phlomis fruticosa. The lawns on the east coast are brown, and yes, there are evergreens, but nowhere near the variety that we can grow.

Hellebores are blooming here and we take them for granted every winter, along with snowdrops, lungwort (Pulmonaria), early daffodils, witch hazel (Hamamelis), winter hazel (Corylopsis) and winter aconites (Eranthis). We can actually design a garden with winter as the backbone, an easy way to guarantee happiness in the quiet season. Make sure to include a witch hazel or ‘Dawn’ viburnum for flowers and scent; sweet box (Sarcococca) for fragrant evergreen understory in the shade; Mahonia x Charity for yellow flowers that draw the earliest hummingbirds; and winter cyclamen for a splash of hot pink flowers and marbled leaves.

It may hail and snow in March, but the robins are still out there singing their hearts out and searching for worms. Rose canes are breaking new growth and every day I go out and prune a few of the dozens and dozens that wait patiently for their annual haircut. This is the time to spot the early weedy grasses and dig them out while the ground is soft, to find the baby cresses and yank them before they bloom and go to seed, to detect the buttercups sneaking in between the irises and geraniums and trowel them out. So don’t be a sissy. Throw on some hooded fleece and get out in the garden. Sooner is better to get going on the spring garden and greet your plant friends as they emerge from winter dormancy.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Early Cuties

There’s something so endearing about the earliest flowers. Yesterday out in my garden, while I was kneeling down to clean up some leaf litter, I came across a little clump of snowdrops that had seeded themselves into the gravel near the greenhouse. Nose to nose with their tiny white flowers marked with green, a thrill coursed through me. Life is back in the garden!

Then I got an e-mail from my friend Michele who wrote, “The snowdrops in my front garden are tugging at my heartstrings.” All over Portland, no doubt, gardeners are exulting in the first flowers.

It’s the same when red peony shoots push through the soil and announce that they’re back for another season of sumptuous flowering. Even those first stems hinting at what’s coming in another few months is enough to make our hearts beat faster. It’s the eternal Yes! that we want to hear whispered, over and over, telling us that the plants lying dormant beneath the earth have only been waiting to reappear and delight us with their marvelous colors and scents.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Thrill of False Spring

It's early February and these last two days have been our "false spring" with temperatures in the 60s, sunny and glorious. I'm in heaven. I know it will rain again, but not yet! Birds are very active too, exulting in the warmth, and the suet feeder is covered with little bush tits every day.

Cutting off last year’s hellebore leaves is so satisfying—while I’m doing this I’m face to face with the newly opening flowers. I tip the pendant blossoms upward with one finger and look right inside them—some white, some pink, some burgundy, some freckled with darker splashes of color. So many hundreds of tiny hellebore seedlings sprout at the feet of the mother plants, it’s hard to find safe places to tread.

Now is the time to cut back the big stands of ornamental switch grasses too—Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Dallas Blues.’ I whack them back with long-handled loppers and pitch the spent tan stalks onto a big tarp, to be dragged to the compost pile. In my mind’s eye I see them rising up again, ‘Shenandoah’ with red tinted slender blades and ‘Dallas Blues’ with broader blue-green foliage.

Sedums too are ready to cut back, ‘Matrona’ and ‘Vera Jameson’ are already pushing up little succulent rosettes. I snip off the old stems and marvel at the signs of new life already arising in February. Everywhere I look the garden’s pulse is quickening.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why I Garden

For me, the garden is the best home I’ve ever made for myself. It’s where I relish the refreshing scent of rosemary and the smoky tints of ‘Hot Cocoa’ roses, that remind me of taffeta skirts. I love to listen to the bush tits whistle, to the chickadees and song sparrows belting out their arias.

Maybe because I grew up in a home where cleaning and cooking were accompanied by heavy sighs, I never took pleasure in housework. But out in the garden, most every job, except for mowing, is fun for me. My first garden teacher, Frank Curtis, radiated so much love for gardening that I caught the bug. He did everything with tender loving care, from settling his baby tomato plants into the soil, to nipping out the suckers, from building a compost pile to turning the soil. He taught me everything he knew—how and when to sow seeds, how to wield a mattock, which plants were weeds—with so much joy! His enthusiasm was contagious.

From the beginning, gardening connected me with a big world of emerging life—woody stems swelling with buds, tiny hellebore seedlings sprouting beneath the mother plants, iridescent black beetles climbing out from a pile of damp leaves. Sometimes I even stop to marvel at the persistence of weeds, at the temerity of slugs and aphids.
If I help out, the wetland I live on becomes a better garden. The native clay soil, for example, is a perfect medium for growing plants—once I amend it with pumice or crushed rock for better drainage, and with compost for more fertility and tilth. The garden needs me to bring it to fruition—we become partners in creation. What a miracle that is!

It’s still work, but in the spirit of joy and play. I take a brain vacation while I’m digging, raking or weeding. A writer’s mind, always busy with words and phrases and punctuation, needs a break from all that mental activity. And I’m guessing that most all of our minds are overloaded with blather and can use a good airing out in the garden.

Even in winter, there’s plenty to do. This week I cut back all the old leaves on the hellebores. There, peeking out from underneath, are the new buds, almost ready to open. One dark purple hellebore is already showing its beautiful face. And here and there, small grey slugs lounge beneath the leaves, growing fatter each day. It’s an easy choice between the flowers and the slugs—slugs gotta go!

Soon it will be time to prune the grape arbor and the roses, but not quite yet. Jumping the gun now could mean exposing the newly pruned plants to the next cold front. I can wait. Meanwhile, I can safely cut back all the deadened stems of totally hardy perennials like turtleflowers, asters, and gooseneck loosestrife. The compost piles grow tall and hefty with leaves, kitchen peelings and old potting soil, waiting for the next rain to pack them down.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Here Come the Catalogs

I love the avalanche of catalogs that floods my mailbox in January. Thanks goodness it’s an oversize mailbox or it would have collapsed under the tonnage. The covers alone thrill me—images of pink lilies and and illustrations of golden beets vie for my attention.
Nichols Garden Nursery (, celebrating its 60th year, has a beautiful cover that takes me back to slower times. Framed by a pear tree, a young woman gathers sunflowers, accompanied by her adorable dog.
I e-mailed artist Marcie Hawthorne ( to let her know how much I love her work, and to request permission to post the cover on my blog. In her reply, she told me more about the illustration.
“This year the artwork depicts my daughter, Sierra, when she was younger, and our beloved (and now departed) female Ridgeback, Teneya, who also was a constant companion in the
garden,” she wrote.
Inside the catalog, vegetable, flower and herb seeds for sale are accompanied by mouthwatering descriptions. Supplies for making cheese, home brewing and wine making will also give you new ideas for 2009.
Rose Marie Nichols McGee and her husband Keane McGee carry on the business that her parents began in 1948. And together with Maggie Stuckey, Rose Marie wrote “The Bountiful Container,” now in its fourth printing. It shows you how to create container gardens of veggies, herbs, fruits and edible flowers.
“People don’t have enough room to do these big gardens. They want a small garden that can yield twelve months a year,” she says. For example, Survivor Parsley can be harvested longer than any other variety.
“It has more sugars in the leaves, and sugars help the plant survive,” Nichols says.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Bluestone Perennials—it was the first mail order catalog I used back in the days when I couldn’t find enough selection in local nurseries (hard to believe now). Their offerings remain tempting and their 15% early discount helps offset the shipping charge. I’m smitten by Agastache ‘Raspberry Summer,’ Sedum ‘Picolette,’ and Kolkwitzia ‘Dream Catcher,’ to name just a few enticements. You can request a free color catalog at their website ( and also check out their tempting half price on-line-only specials.
Leafing through the White Flower Farm catalog is like walking through a spring and summer garden. The lush color photos practically jump off the page, especially the dazzling dahlia display. Most of all I love the container collections, which make me want to plant more annuals next summer. The way to offset the shipping is to order a $50 (or more) gift certificate and get a 10% discount on your order.
Some of my most unusual plants have come from forestfarm (, a major source of woody and herbaceous ornamentals, located in Williams, Oregon. At the website you can see color photos of the plants, and order a free print copy of the catalog which will serve as a terrific reference book. I usually order the more economical tubes (which have always been thick with well-formed roots) and then grow them on in larger pots. You’ll be amazed at their offerings of viburnum, hydrangea, eucalyptus, pine, crape myrtle, willow....

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Back in the Garden, At Last

Is It Winter or Spring?

During the snow storm, I’d taken apart my two piece terra cotta birdbaths and laid the tops—the basins—on the ground. In past years the weight of snow and ice would tip over the birdbaths, but not any more! In February I’ll reassemble them—for now they’ll stay put in case we have another cold front.

So this mild January morning, the birds were creative and found their own natural birdbath—the little bog had filled to the brim with rainwater. Splashing away freely, several robins sang heartily enough to wake me from my writing trance. I watched them through my office window, grabbing binoculars for a closer look. Plump, russet-breasted birds reveled in the fresh water, fluttering their wings and spraying droplets all around them. Oh yes! Then, flying across the garden, they swooped low and high. Praising the sun, the moisture, the worms now easy to pull from damp and mossy lawn.

Reluctantly, I left for an aerobics class at the gym, but made sure to drive straight home afterwards, without getting sidetracked. The afternoon remained dry and temperate, a perfect time for a reunion with my beloved garden—I’d been missing my connection with the earth for some weeks now.

I celebrated, along with the birds. Was it winter or spring? On Sunday it was snowing and today it was mild as May. It’s hard not to get spring fever when the birds are singing and bright green moss springs up through the lawn from so much moisture. I got out my long-handled loppers and pruned a big yellow-twig dogwood, taking out the thick older trunks, and leaving the newer, brighter stems. I raked up the last of the spiny sweet gum seedpods from the lawn, and filled the yard debris can to the top. I’ll sleep soundly tonight!