Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, Seattle, my city.
Merry Christmas fellow gardeners everywhere.
Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter 1

In all this giving up
In the quick gloom
And drizzle
We unravel
But cannot become bare
Like the trees

We hold on

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Trees Are Just The Beginning

Have you noticed how Christmas brings out the hidden botanist within us? People who, two weeks ago, couldn't point out a Douglas Fir tree in a forest full of 'em, are now looking down their noses at the folks who are decorating a Pseudotsuga menziesii in their living room instead of the far superior Abies procera or A. balsamea. Suddenly the Pinaceae is fair game for casual conversation. Suddenly I'm not the only one in a given room who can tell the difference between true firs and Doug Firs. That means I'm not the weird one anymore! The world is speaking my language and I belong!
But alas, the season is ephemeral and upon the New Year the populace will undergo a bludgeoning repression of its collective memory until all those beautifully classified conifers become nothing but "pine trees" once again. And it's back to blank looks when I try to explain to friends and clients that really, there are only two common evergreens you see in Western Washington, Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars, and you can easily tell the difference by the way their leaves...

See, I bet you even trailed off while you were reading that.

Clearly what we need is a greater number of specific plant-related holiday traditions. You know, just to keep the nomenclature sharp (and, OK, to make me feel less like I spend half my time speaking an alien language). Therefore, please do your best in helping me to disseminate the following soon-to-be cherished rites.

*The New Year's Resolution-Maple: Everyone brings a maple leaf to their respective New Year's party and publicly (drunkenly is allowed, too) enumerates one resolution for every lobe of their leaf. Since different Acer species have different numbers of lobes, this will encourage people to find certain species that afford them a greater (or lesser) degree of optimism and resolve. The main challenge will be to find maple leaves at a time of year when the trees are bare. Big Box to the rescue! Next year, alongside countless Poinsettias at Home Depot, you'll find a sea of little maples just for the occasion!

*Sweetheart Cuttings: Valentine's Day pretends to have a green thumb what with all the roses flying around, but the only thing people really learn each year is that roses are freaking expensive. So let's take it up a notch. Instead of a bouquet of generic roses, really impress your sweetie with a bouquet of hand-selected hardwood cuttings. The successful propagation thereof would serve as a symbolic reminder of your love... and if the cuttings don't take, then your love was never meant to be. Sorry.

*The Easter Viburnum Hunt: Why just scatter Easter Eggs randomly throughout the yard? Let it be known that the Easter Bunny only deposits goodies in Viburnum shrubs and within each species can be found a trademark treat of varying caliber. I'd like it if the quality of treat would correspond with my own opinion of a given shrub. Therefore, Viburnum bodnantense or V. plicatum tomentosum would be automatic jackpots, while V. tinus would be the equivalent of coal in your stocking.

*Blow-Up A Boxwood!: This sure-to-be favorite of the Independence Day festivities is a patriotic way to rid the world of one more Buxus. Just find the nearest ugly shrub smelling of cat-pee, insert a large illegal firecracker, light fuse and get away!

That should get us through the next half a year, anyway. Let me know if you've got any other suggestions. Keep in mind these traditions will take on regional and personal variations as they spread; but try to remember that the point of such special moments we share with our friends and family is to make me feel more normal. It can be so easy, in the midst of holiday chaos, to forget that. Thank you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Door To Door

I feel dirty. For a gardener, that's really something. Dirty is usually the norm, cleanliness being a fleeting and difficult condition aspired to with all the sincerity of a Holiday dieter. But it is no tangible dirt that makes me unclean this day; it is a soiled soul that won't be rinsed of its deeds; it is a stained conscience scrubbed raw in futility. In a cold sweat, I beg forgiveness, knowing none will be, none could be granted.

I have gone door-to-door.

One by one, I have darkened the doorstep of a neighborhood's innocent homes. I have crept, snuck, slithered about a cheery place leaving behind me a spoor of business cards and advertisements for the garden service which is my employer, hung around doorknobs and handles in the universally-recognized fashion of unsolicited marketing. Like junk mail, but creepier since an actual human being had the gall to tread each walk and step with the incriminating documents in hand. Like a door-to-door salesman who has nothing really to offer, who just shows up one day to point out that a random service exists, in case maybe you forgot how to use a phone book or search engine. It's not even a coupon for our garden service, it's just a piece of paper that seems to say: 'here we are, you clearly need help with your yard, so just this once, we're going to grant you the privilege of hiring us, it's your own damn loss if you fail to do so'.
I am put in this position because the economy and season have thrown our business on tough times, so we have taken to advertising in desperation. It is my humble opinion that advertising might have had its place a little earlier in this business plan. As it stands, it seems a Hail-Mary clause: Well shoot, what happens if we run out of money and no one knows we exist? Well then, and only then, we'll send out our crack team of gardeners/ninja marketers to flood random neighborhoods with business cards. Don't worry about incentives, people will be so impressed with the font of our cards and our well-spaced phone number that they will call and beg to pay for whatever it is we do.
One of the main reasons I like being a gardener is that I can usually convince myself that I am doing some kind of good; I am doing something which, even if it doesn't make someone blissfully happy, it might make them a little less angry at everything. Distributing door-hangers affords me no such reassurance. In fact, it goes a little bit in the opposite direction; I'm pretty sure that when people come home from a long day of work to find that piece of paper hanging from their doorknob they get a little angrier at the world, holding out maybe long enough to see if it's a coupon from a pizza place; but no, it's just some jerk saying their garden looks like crap and that means they're paying full price for pizza tonight.

Ugh, I can't stand it. I've got to go take another shower.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Breathe and Count To 10

It just doesn't stop. Raining that is. Now, I'm not going to complain about the rain, per se; because after all I live in Seattle and chose to become a gardener, so whose fault is that? But the problem is, being outside in the rain for 8 hours a day takes a certain amount of patience, or resilience, or stubbornness, or stupidity or something... anyway, I find that I have a limited reservoir of that something and this can become severely depleted during a month like November when Seattle averages about 20 days of rain. There is a whole mess of rain-related irritations (donning and shedding rain gear, swapping wet gloves with dry gloves until they're all wet, trying to sweep leaves across wet sidewalks when they are glued by suction to the concrete; just to name a few), each of which takes a little slice of my patience so that eventually, there is nothing left to deal with the normal, everyday irritations of being a gardener.
Thus I find myself in situations where the slightest nuisance can become so amplified rattling around inside my empty tank that a feedback screech of cartoon-like anger erupts within me. I am not an angry person in general, which I'm sure makes it all the more startling to watch me calmly raking up leaves, leaning my rake against something, rake sliding, sliding, falling and hitting me on the head, me pausing for a second, wait for it... then me lunging after the offending rake like a beast awoken, tongue ablaze with language usually reserved for the culminating target of a life's vendetta, promising to wipe the Earth of the rake's spawn and spit on their graves then spread tales of the dastardly rake, its dastardly deeds and it dastardly seed. Then, while throttling the rake's scrawny neck with one hand, I'll usually give a good long look around the neighborhood to see if there are any car windows I can inconspicuously slam the rake into a good 3 dozen times or so. Nope, just the tempting windows of my own car. Then back to yelling at the rake for making me think destructive thoughts towards my own car.
Fortunately, these rages burn hot, bright and quick, usually spent before they can be applied towards any explicitly illegal acts. Wait another 10-15 minutes though, and I'm sure to jab myself with my Hori-Hori or tip over my tool bucket, and then it's back to livid, nonsensical anthropomorphizing and detached wonder that people consider gardening a low-stress job.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Call Me... John

Don't call me John.
It's not my name.
I know that on this blog I've not used my real name, but rest assured that it is not Maranta... nor is it John.
Only one person is allowed to call me John and that is because he thinks it is my name and has been using it for some time now. It's my own fault really.

I am not generally on a first name basis with my clients, that is, I know their names but they do not know mine; most would not even recognize me if I showed up on their doorstep in full gardening attire. To these people I am not a gardener, I am the gardening fairy. Sometime when the leaves begin to pile up, or the perennials are full of dead-heads, they rest a finger idly upon their chin and think: 'Hmm, now that's not right, something usually happens to prevent all this clutter. It'd sure be nice if that something happened again.' And they go about performing various superstitious dances, chants, prayers, and sacrifices to the gardening pantheon in hopes of incurring some sort of miraculous garden cleanup event. And then, while they're gone at work someday, the leaves disappear, the weeds disappear, and all is right again. Little do they know there is a man behind this phenomenon, that he is not currently a member of any pantheon (though he is accepting invitations), and that there is a direct link between the bill they receive in the mail every month, its being paid, and how likely he is to sneak in and answer their prayers while they are away.
Not a high profile gig, in other words. I don't spend too long planning my outfit in the morning or talking to my P.R. person. In the event that I am accidentally seen or stumbled upon by a client, there inevitably follows a myth-shattering and awkward disenchantment (think kids catching Mommy or Daddy putting presents under the Christmas tree instead of Santa), heightened by a decided lack of casual conversational skills on the part of yours truly. I have tried just freezing on the spot when seen, to promote the fable that gardeners turn to stone when seen by mortals, but for some reason this seems to creep people out rather than to re-enchant them. Also, just turning around and sprinting out of sight doesn't work either; apparently gardeners and thieves share a common mystique when fleeing.
So I'm fine with keeping a low-profile most of the time. There are, however, a small handful of clients who insist on being friendly, appreciative people; these will occasionally go so far as to openly acknowledge my existence and look me in the eye. To date, two of these have bothered to learn my name; one has successfully ascertained my true identity and one calls me 'John'.
This is because, one dull morning while I was more or less zoned out working in a sidewalk bed, I suddenly heard a loud, friendly "How's it going, John!?" directed right at me. Looking up, startled, I saw my client emerging from the front of his house, looking towards me. I briefly looked around, saw no one else near me, and started to become giddy. Someone was acknowledging me! Who cares if they were calling me 'John', maybe someone told him that was my name, maybe I had a predecessor whose name was John and he just mixed up the names, maybe he just calls everyone John! Who cares!? So I replied, as loud and friendly, "Going good, how 'bout you!?. Exactly as I was saying this, I heard a voice from about 6 feet behind me expressing much the same sentiment. Turns out 'John' was a real person, a friend of my client, and he was standing directly behind me. So then my client, with a slightly puzzled look on his face, but ever friendly, attempted to continue the conversation with both 'John's simultaneously, all the while permanently etching in his brain that his gardener responds to 'John', so that must be his name! Fabulous, now we can converse on a first name basis!
(Sigh) And we do! It's just the wrong first name... But who am I to correct him, one of the only clients who ever bothered to discern that I am a real person with a name, not some benevolent and whimsical garden sprite who visits unseen then flutters away to have lunch with the garbage fairy and the house-cleaning elves.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


The back yard is nice; but the inside is full of mold, damp chills, spiders and futility. Our home, that is. So it's time to go, to weasel out of this rotten lease and find a bit of air we can breathe without the aid of a high-tech oscillating quadruple filtration system; to talk to a landlord without the need for legal counsel; to sleep without fear of a mycotoxic silt bringing unkown disease in the still night; to drop these ugly thoughts about the evil lassitude we all suffer and inflict upon our fellow human beings.
And, hopefully, to take a lesson or two with me.

A lot of our belongings are ruined... one by one discovered lousy with mold, to be tossed into triage piles of things we never thought we'd have to clean, to throw away or to keep as priceless but with the caveat that spores spare not the sentimental.
So, too, in moving plants to a new rental with no backyard. This pile for plants I cannot part with: Hamamelis, you get to stay; little Sango-Kaku Japanese Maple I've had since a twig, you get to stay; Fuchsia, Hydrangea, Stewartia, too beautiful to leave behind, you're in; contorted Chamaecyparis obtusa, you're in but I'm sorry you're going to have to stay in that small pot for another year.
This pile for giveaways - plants I cannot throw away but lack the space or sunlight for: all my delicious berries, you'll be in good hands with my parents; Sambucus nigra 'guincho purple', I hardly knew ye, but my coworker will take good care of you (if she doesn't you tell me and I'll come rescue you); sentimental lilies, we'll be together again someday, I promise!
And this pile for those who didn't make the cut... let's pour out a watering can on the curb for the fallen, we got dead plants walkin' here: miscellaneous conifers I lost interest in, you deserved better than me; Coreopsis, your summer sunshine will shine no more; Portuguese Laurel, I promised so much and delivered so little, you were going to be my beautiful broadleaf evergreen tree, together we would show the world that laurel could be so much more than just a hedge - but nevermore; big unknown Japanese Maple that always fell over because you grew too fast for the pot I gave you, sorry, but this is what you get.
It feels strange to be playing God with all these plants I took into my care; but then, as gardeners, isn't that what we do?

Often, it can be difficult to make the decisions necessary to live more simply. It is so easy to accumulate and justify and tuck away and hold on that our lives become a clutter of half-remembered excuses and the objects they excuse. We become fiends for the vague sentimentality of things that connect us to our halcyon past, for the little glow of anything familiar. So when life shoves you aside and insists upon itself being lived more simply, i.e. by ruining your stuff and disallowing plants you've held for too long, I figure we may as well embrace the opportunity and be grateful, if we can.

All right, I'm outta here...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Old Faithful (Hori Hori R.I.P. #3)

Honestly, I'm surprised I lasted this long. I've heard it happens to all gardeners eventually, you just never expect it when it's your turn. How appropriate, though, that it happened on my first day with my brand new replacement Hori Hori Knife. For those readers not following along, I "lost" my trusty Hori Hori a couple months ago and have been eulogizing its loss by enumerating its many fun uses. Today I discovered a fun new use: Geyser-Creating-Device!
The story pretty much writes itself, but is best imagined in jerky, black and white silent-movie slapstickery. Two gardeners idly chatting, enjoying a leisurely Monday of planting seasonal beds for autumn. One gardener pulls out a Hori Hori knife to plant some bulbs (a la R.I.P #2). His face gradually shows signs of frustration, as the ground seems to be much harder and rockier than he would like. Bulb by bulb, he begins jabbing the ground harder and harder. Boy, this must be some soil! He wipes sweat off his face and laughs; fortunately there are only a few more bulbs left to plant. Ha ha! Jab jab jab and then the screen erupts in white! Oh goodness, he's hit a PVC irrigation pipe and stabbed right through it with that fool knife of his! A 12 foot geyser is shooting out of the ground and he's flat on his ass with a priceless look on his dripping wet face; the other gardener is running around clearly yelling and (if you can read lips) clearing swearing up a storm!

The rest of the afternoon is not nearly so well-scripted and tends to drag on into increasingly muddy and shameful trips to the local hardware store as successive attempts to repair the problem before the clients get home are met with more catastrophic damage of the irrigation system, more livid cursing than ever, and more pitying looks from the hardware store employees.
So dear diary today I learned that a Hori Hori knife piloted by impatience and frustration can become a terrible force of nature, spawning elemental water spouts from seemingly dry ground; I also learned how not to repair broken PVC pipe (turns out there's more than one way!) and, just in the nick of time before the end of the day, how to correctly repair broken PVC pipe. And now, for the rest of the season, every bulb I plant will be just a little bit too shallow because frankly I'm terrified to dig anymore.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hori Hori R.I.P. #2

How could I forget planting bulbs!
After planting a few hundred yesterday, I don't think I'll ever forget again! I'm planting bulbs in my dreams and vacant gazes; my hands are on auto-pilot, inappropriately stabbing any nearby surface during casual living-room conversations, clawing for that magical depth of 6" because I'm subconsciously sure that the couch would look lovely in the spring with a dozen tulips poking out of its cushions. Bulbs go anywhere! Bulbs go everywhere! I'm Johnny Appleseed's less popular and more often medicated brother Tommy Tulipbulb!

I guess if you have to go nuts planting too many bulbs, you may as well have a hori hori knife along for the ride. I know there are any number of tools sold for the sole purpose of planting bulbs (including some spectacularly ineffective drill bits that are supposed to carve out a nice tidy hole - do not ask my boss about these unless your sweet tooth is craving a lengthy tirade against the retail nursery industry and the "idiots" who work therein) but the hori hori exists to make such specialized tools unnecessary. I do not want 260 tools in my kit, one for every task I'm faced with; I want 1 tool (OK, 2 if you count my Leatherman) which stays always on my belt. The hori-hori negates the need to "dig a hole" for every single bulb you have to plant. Instead, you just stab-stab-stab a narrow column in the soil, drop in a bulb, cover up and repeat... several hundred times!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Good Things Grow

At a time when the only things growing in my life seem to be mold - over my entire apartment and all my belongings - and uninsured health problems, who else but my parents could remind me that good things grow, too. This unsolicited bounty (plus a few items that found my mouth before they found their way into this photo) came from their garden in the fertile soils of Camano Island and it was casually handed to me in a large plastic bag during a family get-together over the weekend.
When I took it home and began washing and inspecting it all, I found myself immersed in the unique and strangely calming beauty of these things that spring up out of the ground and grow ever more appealing as time goes by...
then I began to question the wisdom of mustard-yellow counter tops and wondered if I should maybe sneak all this produce into a Lowe's display kitchenette for a more attractive photo shoot.

Counter tops aside, I realized that even in a storm of worries and problems, there is usually plenty to be grateful for; in this case, loved ones and vegetables.
So here's a special thank you to all my friends, family and... Swiss Chard (it's just so pretty!)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thank You Ladies and Gentlemen, Please Remember to Tip Your Gardeners

OK, you don't have to, but it sure would be nice.
Out of the blue the other day, after a couple hours' work installing some new container plantings, my co-worker and I were each slipped a nice crisp $20 bill by our client and told that we did beautiful work for which he was very grateful and that we should treat ourselves to something cold to drink.

I nearly cried.
And yes, I treated myself to a Grande, Pomegranate something-cold-to-drink on the rocks, no salt.

It just doesn't happen in this business; tipping is something from my high-school days of delivering pizza, when the extra couple of bucks almost made it worth driving around in a perpetually overheating car exposing myself to cracked-door slices of sordid Americana. Back then the tip was an acknowledgment that, while pizza delivery is not rocket science, I still managed to not f*ck it up in an industry rife with f*ck-ups; furthermore I took that spare change as risk reward, knowing that the next cracked-door might reveal a particularly well-armed slice of Americana demanding more than just an extra packet of Parmesan cheese (trust me, it happens).
But gardening is different. If you are a bad gardener, you are not tolerated because at least you showed up with pizza; you are fired. Therefore, the mere ability to maintain regular clients is its own reward and letting me keep 83 cents for not messing up a hedge is more or less redundant. I do not wish gardening to become one of those awkward trades where tipping is sort of half-expected to the point of crippling ambiguity on the patron's behalf to be returned by ready, frosty glares from any slighted worker. While I am not laughing my way from jobsite to the bank every day, I am paid a fair wage for my work (some days I believe this more than others) and do not expect anything beyond an agreed upon price for my services. That being said, gardening can be grueling work and gardeners are known to enjoy a something-cold-to-drink after a long hard day, so I am certainly not going to refuse the $20 out of some noble but vague system of vocational ethics. Nor will I be offended by the social hierarchy implicit in any tipper/tippee relationship, because I choose to interpret a tip as the only available means of expressing superlative gratitude in an increasingly impersonal culture (although I would also be moved to tears if someone slipped me a thank you note or chocolate-chip cookie) rather than as a patronizing reminder of my servitude. If I came to expect a $20 tip after every job, the gesture would rapidly lose its significance and sincerity; as it is, I am moved because it is a completely unexpected act of generosity and kindness. Never underestimate the power of such acts.
Here are some other ways you can thank your gardener:

* Consistently keep your vicious attack dog locked up inside, not just occasionally
* Hire an on-site massage therapist to tackle those charlie-horses, cramps, muscle strains, and general soreness that inevitably arise in the course of the day.
* Speak to him as an equal, not as a servant
* Offer to sharpen his tools
* Offer to give him a straight-razor shave when he starts to look particularly scruffy
* Shout peppy High School cheers out of the window when he clearly cannot get the leaf-blower started
* Remember his name
* Remember that he is human and cannot achieve superhuman feats of gardening merely because you desire it
* "Accidentally" Leave tall frosty glasses of iced-tea, with just a little bit of lemon, scattered around the garden on hot days
*Every once in a while, pretend that plants are something interesting out of which someone besides a complete reject might choose to make a career

That covers most of the bases, but remember as long as it's a sincere gesture of appreciation, it doesn't really matter what you do. And don't limit yourself to gardeners; everyone likes something cold to drink!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To Smash Or Not To Smash

...That is the question for the Karmic Gardener.
Whether 'tis nobler to spare all creatures big and small in the name of compassion or to protect your beloved garden's plants, smashing all creatures big and small underfoot with the fury of a vengeful god and an overprotective mother rolled into one karmicidal death machine (which I'm sure the good people at Scotts/Miracle-Gro/Ortho are scrambling to reproduce in spray form; maybe I should copyright that while I still can: Karmicidal Death Machine©).
Every gardener I have known has established his/her own system for evaluating the rights of garden pests to exist beyond a smear on the bottom of a shoe. For some, there simply are no such rights for anything unfortunate enough to wander into the garden; these types can be found sitting on the front porch, shotgun in hand, waiting for their chance to demonstrate their inalienable sovereign right to blow sh*t up if it crosses that line between not-garden and garden. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who cannot bear to intentionally harm any living thing and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so while generally making every other gardener feel like a heartless, murdering piece of karmic trash, doomed to spend the next several lives as an indentured earwig with asthma and skin problems to pay for that earwig they just accidentally sat on.

Most fall somewhere in between.

The interesting part is how each gardener sets the scales of pragmatism and compassion to balance their usually arbitrary and illogical feelings towards each offending creature. One of the easiest ways to set these scales is to put all "harmful" animals in one pan and all "beneficial" animals in the other; basically, anything that harms your plants gets the firing squad and anything that eats those pests or just minds its own business gets salvation and a blessing. Thus a gardener that I know: sweetly shooting daggers my way anytime I disturb a spider's web ("beneficial"), trying to remedy the situation by sing-songing apologies to the poor little sweetie, and in the next moment snarling "goddamn snails" ("harmful") under her breath, smashing the offending abomination of a creature down on the ground and terminating the infraction with a well-placed, well-stomped heel. The problem is, by this line of thinking, those irksome but beautiful deer that frequent your salad-bar of a garden are as good as venison, and if there existed a garden clog big enough, they should be stomped with all the wrath and snarl due any other garden pest. Now, the idea of smashing a deer underfoot probably sent some shudders around and for this I apologize, but my point is that death and justice are not easily doled out by any logical system we establish because the act of killing is an emotional one and will always be affected by our irrational feelings. Why is the deer spared? Because it is more beautiful and closer to our own size than other pests and thus feels more like killing a fellow creature than does hosing off some aphids. Why do I smash the occasional spider? Because the big ones freak me the hell out and despite my homage to Buddhist tenets such as Karma and compassion, I cannot always shove aside the feeling that this fast, spindly thing in front of me is going to kill me if I do not kill it first. Conversely I feel absolutely no threat from a snail and actually think they are kind of cool; so if they want to munch on some leaves, so be it, I don't consider it a crime punishable by death.

I guess, beyond noble belief systems, what it comes down to is how you feel when you kill something. Are the feelings of guilt outweighed by feelings of justice being served? If not, then you probably won't drop the clog, so to speak. The karmic scale is already tipped against humans because of our size and lumbering, reckless ways; if I were to add up all the spiders I've killed by blundering into webs and then frantically brushing and slapping at my body like a drunken slapstick act, I would probably drop this whole Karma thing as damning beyond salvation. I can only hope that one time I held the elevator door for someone scores me some serious points to make up for this unavoidably murderous profession of gardening (at least I think I held the door...).

Monday, August 31, 2009

Hori Hori R.I.P. #1

I'll start off with one of the more unusual applications I have discovered for the Hori Hori: hedging-residue-buildup-scraper.
During hedging season, the only enemies standing between myself and a successful day of clipping hedges are sharpening and cleaning. Sharpening for obvious reasons: even the best made hedge shears will succumb to hours upon consecutive hours of blade-dulling action and nothing is more frustrating than making a series of well-placed cuts only to find out that nothing has, in fact, been cut.
Less obvious is the not-so-slow buildup of mashed leaf bits (I could wax plant-physiological here and throw out some speculations as to which cell parts are most likely to stick to a blade, but ultimately it's just mashed, smashed plant matter) which accumulates along a certain axis of each cutting blade. This accumulation is somewhat sticky and serves to slow down the speed of my cuts, to mess up the timing and placement of my cuts (thus messing up the shape of a given hedge) and to reduce me to a livid, cursing, anthropomorphizing singularity of gardening rage.
There is no way to traditionally "clean" this residue off of the shears, it responds only to physical force (steel wool, wire brush, etc.) and even then only moderately. One day, when my steel brush was bent and flattened beyond all use, I decided to try scraping the flat edge of my hori hori knife against the blade of the shears and, lo-and-behold, gunk gone! Score one for Hori Hori!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Surgeon And I

Does a surgeon have a favorite scalpel? One he/she uses more often than is strictly necessary? One whose versatility and usefulness have grown as a function of the surgeon's own sentimental attachment to the point of its being used in borderline inappropriate circumstances, say trying to hack through a bone in lieu of a bonesaw or even being snuck home in a pocket to use as a steak knife on the weekend? If the surgeon inexplicably misplaces the scalpel after years of loyal service, is he utterly lost? Does he suit up for surgery only to freeze at the operating table like a first year med-school student with second-thoughts, realizing he could no more perform surgery without his sidekick scalpel than he could stand up on the table and sing the Magna Carta to the tune (and in a round) of row-row-row your boat?
If this is the case (and I, for one, strongly suspect it is) then I have nothing but sympathy and compassion for the poor surgeon because I am a kindred lost soul.

I am without my Hori Hori Knife.

I cannot forgive myself, because it was my own inexcusable fault for leaving it behind in a raised bed along a busy street, like some forged siren singing its many magical properties to all passers-by. I only hope whoever took it will give it a good home, and discover for it many more uses to add to my own extensive list.
For anyone unfamiliar with a Hori Hori Knife (it's okay, you don't have to feel ashamed), it is quite simply my favorite gardening tool and without its reassuring weight on my belt I feel like less of a gardener, less of a man somehow. It is an indestructible 6" Japanese steel blade with a simple wood handle; it is not sharp per-se, but it has one dully serrated edge and one straight edge that meet to form an ever so slightly concave point. Strapped to a belt, from a distance, it looks like a particularly stout and vicious hunting knife (and in fact, I have received more than one suspicious glance from innocent bystanders who must have thought me some kind of half gardener/half military assassin run amok in their neighborhood). It is sold as a "weeding tool", a task to which it is admirably suited but which label does no more justice than selling a modern computer as a "Tetris-playing tool".
In the interests of not publishing an encyclopedic dissertation in one blog post, I will not attempt to enumerate the sundry uses for the Hori Hori all at once, but will rather christen a new installation at Callus and Chlorophyll which will eulogize and regularly explore the applications of my beloved knife gone astray, to be entitled: "Hori Hori R.I.P".
Stay tuned for more.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Revelation

Remember, as a child, making yourself sick on fresh-picked fruit? With a dire (but unheeded) mothers' warning ringing in your head as some unknown motive force takes control of your hands and desperately grabs just one more raspberry from the vine, just one more strawberry or apple?
Our little human bodies, genetically compelled to partake of, but physiologically incapable of processing, such a bounty, are thrown headfirst into the fray of will power and restraint when confronted with such a wonder as an orchard or a vineyard. The animal says consume until there is nothing left; the mind reels at the notion of something so delicious just hanging around outside bearing a parent's blessing instead of the usual "Please, please, please! Why not? You never let me have anything! It's not fair!" that comes heavy with the prospect of other treats; the mouth only remembers the last mouthful and how nice that was; everything but that one little warning is gleefully screaming "one more, why not!?"
And then, a little bit later, you get sick.
One look from your mother at your juice-stained mouth and hands and she knows you chose to learn your lesson the hard way.

As it turns out, I still occasionally learn this lesson the hard way (thanks mostly to my parents' garden); and if none of this sounds familiar to you then you have probably been raised on store-bought produce and you deserve to treat yourself to an afternoon at a U-pick berry farm. Because when kids learn that first lesson (and second, and so on) they are not just learning that fruits and vegetables in excess can make you sick, they are learning that fresh fruits and vegetables can be so incredibly good that they are worth making yourself sick on. Store-bought produce varieties are bred to be durable, to ship well, to freeze well, to be pest-free and if, after all that, they end up being palatable, then huzzah for a happy coincidence; they are just not good enough to inspire a lifelong devotion to healthy-eating.
If you think for a moment, you may recall a particularly delicious piece of store-bought fruit you have had lately... go ahead, maybe it was that one unmealy apple or an orange that didn't have that weird thing with the creepy dry juice-sacs...
These are only memorable because they shine above the mediocrity of the average produce experience! It should not be momentous occasion to enjoy fruit, it should be the norm!
As a bonus now, try to recall a particularly delicious store-bought vegetable you have had recently... go ahead, I'll wait...
No? Nothing? I feared as much. And if you can, it's likely because you made a delicious dish out of those vegetables, not because of any intrinsic tastiness of the vegetables themselves.
For people who have never pulled a carrot out of the ground, brushed it on their sleeve and eaten it on the spot, eating vegetables will seem like a chore because there is no visceral connection to the flavors, textures and life of the food they are eating. Carrots become bland, packaged, merchandised products they buy out of a dimly-understood patriotic duty to their bodies. For years now, I have tossed a bag of peeled baby carrots into my shopping cart as a relatively inoffensive concession to my own health (I dunno, they're orange and make you see better, right?). This summer though, my cup (or fridge, as it were) overfloweth with carrots from the aforementioned parents' garden and from my own potted garden (yes, you can grow carrots in a pot!) and I have found myself actually eating them as a snack rather than as an obligatory addendum to a sack-lunch.
Carrots taste good! I think I knew that once, as a kid, but after I lost access to farm and garden, I slowly morphed into the baby-carrot-buying zombie here before you today. It is a revelation, replete with unknown and forgotten flavors, with subtlety and vitality. It is the satisfaction of an urge forged in malnourished ancestors, of a need to be alive and well.
I encourage everyone who has not already: plant some seeds, visit a local farm, farmers market or neighbor's garden; have your own revelation... but don't make yourself sick!
(OK, go ahead and make yourself a little sick.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sweaty Seattle

So I just checked the national weather map and decided that I can legitimately complain about the 105 degree weather we are experiencing here in Seattle, because it's the hottest freaking place in the country right now. It's too hot to garden... my boss called all jobs off for the rest of the week; it's too hot to think straight... nobody in Seattle bothers with air conditioning because we're supposed to be a mild climate, so everyone just kind of lingers in the grocery stores and flocks to the shores of Lake Washington and the Puget Sound out of some half-remembered genetic survival imperative (think of a chicken flapping its wings to avoid a predator). Even despite these efforts our brains are so heat-fried by the end of the day that all attempts at conversation lapse into a stoner's syntax of sentence fragments and slippery topics which, once dropped, no one has the energy to pick back up. Fortunately, arguments go the same way.
Rediscovered are such triumphs of civilization as electric fans, gins-and-tonic, aloe gels, and casual nudity. Gone are the midday meal and gratuitous, body-conscious exercising (this includes such thermodynamic quicksand as walking upstairs to let guests in and hurrying across a busy street... doors have knobs and cars have brakes, don't they?). Gone too are all preconceptions about sweating and its role in society; everyone sweats, rather a lot, and once everyone in the city is sweating we are united in our bodies' dripping, tragically futile last stand against heat exhaustion. We suffer together, and stalwartly we accept our turn to complain about the damn heat.

Gone too is my willingness to sit in front of this computer in the hottest room of the house... stay cool, everyone.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ocimum basilicum compendium

The way I see it, why not put basil in everything? I've got two huge pots with about 15 strong, seed-grown plants each and I simply cannot pick leaves off faster than new ones appear. This is not for lack of trying either - even before I start cooking an inkling of a dinner I'll step out to the porch and cavalierly yank a big handful of leaves, figuring that whatever dish I decide to make there'll be a soft spot in its heart for a whole lotta fresh basil. Partly, this indulgence is due to the herbs own baffling deliciousness which I keep expecting to (but never does) diminish with gluttonous overuse; and partly it is due to the whirling calculator in my head that delights in noting how much money I would be spending on all this basil were I to buy it at the grocery store (probably in the hundreds of dollars so far for this season) but instead am lasciviously enjoying for the paltry price of a packet of seeds and a little potting soil.
More than many deserving and competing flavors, this one has become, for me, the taste of summer. It can sometimes be finicky to grow in the Pacific Northwest, generally preferring the hot dry weather that exists for about 3 days out of the year here in Seattle, but this Summers' long heat waves has made our home a thriving basil paradise. So, once again, why not put it in everything? (OK, so I can name one bad decision a few years ago whereby I ended up with a big bowl of basil ice cream. This was, at first bite, intriguing; at second, strange; at third, queasy; and finally, just abandoned for fear of ruining the herb forever, to be added to my "Never again" list with Peppermint Schnapps and steamed celery.)
Here are some suggestions (to give credit where credit is due, some of these inspirations belong to my girlfriend); first, for the uninitiated try basil on:

*Pizza (never cook the basil though, always add fresh right before you eat!)
*Sandwiches (try to stick to the savory sandwiches, peanut butter is only so-so)
*Caprese salad
*Almost any breakfast dish (omelettes, breakfast wraps, scrambles etc.)
*Greek "Pizza" (this one is a proprietary creation of my girlfriend and I, and a mainstay of our menu consisting of miscellaneous greekish ingredients thrown on top of a pita bread with hummus, you can try it, but then you owe us royalties.)
*Spring rolls (Oh my god, I want a spring roll right now)
*Homemade pesto
*Pho (basil is pretty much the only easy part of making Pho from scratch)
*Mojito, instead of or in addition to mint

If you're feeling more brave try some of these basil-applications (or don't)

*Huffing the leaves
*Basil Soda
*Toss into a trail mix or granola
*Basil Jello
*Basil Jello shooters
*Basil float (combine the aforementioned basil ice cream with the aforementioned basil soda)
*On your breakfast cereal, instead of bananas
*Use basil instead of post-it notes in the office
*Wrap leaves into a resonant tube to make a soulful basil flute
*As a hair accessory
*As a bribery tool
*Substitute basil leaves for your favorite deck of playing cards and watch the faces light up at your next poker night
*Basil lingerie, for those sultry Summer nights
*Next time you're feeling down, pull up a chair next to your basil plant and give it a piece of your troubled mind

That should get you started, anyway. Now, you'll excuse me, I'm off to enjoy a delicious cup of fresh basil coffee and a basil danish to start this day off right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I have been swindled.

Rather, I have swindled myself. I just have no head for business; in the "art of the deal" my medium is crayon and I cannot even stay inside the lines. Understand this, please, before I share my latest folly, which went and continues to go thusly:
The world of fine gardening not being as lucrative as I had hoped (my agent somehow failing to secure me that extra couple of zeros at the end of my salary), it was time to leave the old apartment behind and find a new one in a more recession-friendly neighborhood. On cost, on quality, on vermin content, on crime-riddenness I was willing to compromise; but this time I would have a backyard with garden space. As it turned out, all conditions were met and my girlfriend and I ended up moving into a cheaper, lower quality, previously infested unit in a neighborhood which is no stranger to sirens of all sorts (there's one now!)... but it has a backyard. I repeat: it has a backyard, it did not have one prior to our occupancy. It had a magnificently preserved fraction-acre of bona fide wild American grassland with lovely borders of bona fide wild American weedland and a pile of bona fide wild American deadchristmastreesland (to say nothing of the beautiful englishivyland sprawled over it all).
Being the confident, bargain-minded gardener that I am, the wheels of a deal started screeching in my head (someone needs to lubricate those damn things). Here was a neglected spot of land in my control; I wanted to turn it into a garden anyway, I do this for a living, so why not see if we could make a little deal whereby we could "take care of" the yard in exchange for a monthly reduction in rent. The property manager was game, the owner was game; that brought us all to the bargaining table.
My chips: I am a professional gardener and tenant who will put in more effort of a higher quality than any hired help ever would; were I to charge a client for the services needed at this rental it would be a staggering sum of cleanup and maintenance fees; being an avid home gardener, I will add to and improve the garden/landscape to the extent that rental prices to future tenants will be justifiably increased.
Their chips: they own and manage the damn place and don't give a fig who lives there or how well they take care of the yard.
My initial offer: Stay vague; get a feel for how much they're willing to slash rent. If they toss out a low number, keep in mind it's a negotiation and after some haggling I'll be able to convince them that I am a valuable asset to them as both a tenant and gardener. No numbers yet.
Their counter offer: $50 off each months rent.
My reply: (Keeping in mind my little pep talk about haggling and how much my chips are worth: far more than this paltry offer. In fact, I'm a little insulted at the supposed value of my chosen vocation as perceived by these idiots) umm... (I mean, really, do they think this is how much good quality gardening costs per month? I'm not going to just run through with a mower and line trimmer on my way to 30 other sites) well... (come on, there's at least 10 times that much work every month to be done here I should ask for way more) hmm... (they should be paying me to live here)...
well, OK, $50 a month is fine.
(The sound of a single hands' applause)

And so, after some ferocious negotiations, we settled on a reduction of rent equal to $50 per month.
So far, after a month, I have put in about $500 worth of work (even at a much discounted rate) and will continue to do so each month, putting in many gardening hours and capital expenditures (hoses, sprinklers, plants, etc.) because I want to create and live in a beautiful place and to provide a beautiful place for future tenants to live in a neighborhood where natural beauty may be hard to find. And those reasons will have to suffice, because due to my superb business and bargaining acumen, I desperately leapt at the first offer that wafted past me and will never be recompensed more than $50 per month.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Emerald City Eve

Sometimes it is so easy, when one gardens for a living, to get caught up in the 9-5 chore of it and to forget there was a reason one chose this profession in the first place. My writing is, of late, replete with petty irritants and irritated preferences, perhaps because those are the refluxed feelings which want most to be granted some sort of written release. Yet once released, they do not speak of my disposition, do not do justice to the wonderful things I touch and see, to the rain and sun that touch me and see me. I have no real cause for complaint, though my complaints seem to be many, because all day every day there are green things around me and whatever the weather, whatever my mood... they live and grow. Whether in my clients' needy gardens or in my own little patch of beloved and tended pot-bound plants; the chlorophyll churns, takes everything but green, and sends that back an emerald gift for those who would see. Even now, in the warm, moonlit backyards of this town, with only the occasional car passing or honking, only the occasional voice struggling over the fences of a still night, all is green in the Emerald City.
May I be wise enough to not take that for granted.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alchemilla mollis

No one's going to say anything? Really, no one's going to say it? I mean, I'll say it if no one else will because someone's got to...
All right, fine.
Alchemilla mollis (Lady's Mantle) is a menace of a weed no matter how you look at it. I cannot be rid of it. It devours gardens while my back is turned. I've scratched futile days away clawing at its rhizomes only to find, upon my next visit, it has returned in viral numbers. It seeds itself with a profusion and desperation usually reserved for certain notorious annual weeds. Yet everyone turns a blind eye to these truths, defending A. mollis as though it were a troubled youth who means well, no matter how many schools he burns down. Yes, the foliage is pretty, and it prettily holds dew and raindrops in its leaves, but once you've held a thunderstorms' worth of rain in your Alchemilla leaves alone, the novelty wears off.
Everyone loves this plant at first sight... and second and maybe third sight. Then it flowers and people aren't quite sure how to feel about the sloppy yellow inflorescences which seem to belong to another, quite different plant (who would have guessed this thing belongs to the Rose family). Then it explodes, producing a million seeds which germinate at about 99.9% success rate no matter what the soil or exposure, and people nervously reason that if they liked a plant enough to buy it in the first place, then having a million more for free must surely be a good thing. Then they sit in passive denial for a year or so until one morning they open the front door and can't find a way through the garden because there is no garden anymore... only an uncrossable sea of Alchemilla mollis... and they call Garden Search and Rescue, aka yours truly, who is airlifted in and charged with the unenviable but heroic task of finding safe passage through the sea to rescue them before food and water supplies run out.
Do not fall in love with this plant, no matter how delightfully blue-green the leaves seem at first glance; do not give away your garden and affections for the price of a pretty dew-drop. This Lady's Mantle is ravenous.
There, I said it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Yesterday, I got paid to go plant shopping.
That's right; but before everyone starts drooling and baying in envy (I know you, gardeners) let me amend that I got paid to go wholesale plant shopping, an altogether less enviable activity than the kid-in-a-candy-shop weekend trip to your local independent garden center.
There are many reasons for this, but let me start by saying that your average wholesale nursery is like a bloated, metastasized garden center that grew far faster than could its governing principles or customer-service infrastructure. To compensate for this dizzying imbalance, I'm convinced, most wholesale facilities have turned to bureaucratic consultants to fix their numerous problems on paper - and amplify them spectacularly in real life.
For example: a great way to make the most of your vast but ultimately limited acreage is to allow roads to take up the least amount of space possible - so just put in a few narrow paths connected by sharp turns et voila, problem solved... on paper. Unfortunately, while I love my Honda Civic hatchback, it is not the vehicle of choice in which to carry a large amount of expensive plants, so I am forced to take a behemoth of an old work truck and jam it down these dirt paths like a midlife crisis down a pair of high-school jeans, narrowly (if at all) avoiding the countless potted plants and sprinkler posts directly abutting the worn wheel grooves - an arrangement which, doubtless, looks good on paper. And if this weren't challenge enough, most of these nurseries do not, for some reason, grant exclusive shopping access to just one customer at a time; I am not allowed to gnash my teeth in solitary and cramped navigational misery, but rather am forced to share these single-serving roads with other landscapers and gardeners (for those who do not know, this green-collared demographic often prides itself on two things: firstly large, noisy trucks every bit as large and noisy as the one I am forced to drive, and secondly an effusing confidence which derives, not from an exceptional skill in handling said trucks - indeed, countless dents and scrapes seem to belie such a skill - but rather from the actual largeness and noisiness of the vehicles themselves). The end result is your narrator wishing he could just park the damn truck in a lot somewhere and spend the afternoon sprinting around with one hand to grab the next plant on the list and one to frantically wave a large bright flag alerting the many reckless (but confident!) landscaper-motorists of his presence.
I would stolidly, if not gladly, weather these perils and frustrations were there a kind, helpful, well-trained customer service staff on hand to answer my questions, coddle my insecurities and assure me that my lack of truck-related confidence is OK because darn it I'm a good person on the inside; but the regrettable truth is that these wholesale nurseries, with few exceptions, see actual, physical customers as a nuisance at best, an infestation at worst. They do not encourage "shopping"; they would rather you have the decency to go away and start a little garden center somewhere, sit down in a chair and flip through their availability sheets, order a truckload of plants without ever laying eyes on them, and then mail in a check. No questions, no eye contact, no driving around their precious nursery dirtying and mussing their plants (heavens!), no complaints about quality, weeds, or the fact that none of their f*ing inventory is labeled correctly, none of any of that pesky customer service stuff which they became nurserymen specifically to avoid.
This is not meant as a spectral condemnation of all wholesale nurseries and their staff; it would be unfair to exclude the few pleasant, helpful encounters I have had, but unfortunately these are far outweighed by the gravity of bad memories - I mean really, how do you write off the absence of nearly 100 Phormium, one of which I have driven all the way to your nursery to obtain, as a computer error!? And come to think of it, can your computer tell me why one cultivar of Rhaphiolepis is located here, while another is no less than 1/2 a mile away in another field, or why I have been charged for 5 gallon plants while the ones I have selected are clearly 1 gallon pots!? Also, has your computer noticed that these "Cistus" as they are labeled look suspiciously like Cotinus!? Sir, I'd like to speak to your computer for a moment...

Friday, June 12, 2009


Once again (and so soon!), a widely cast web of apologies is in order for my neglect of this blog, which this time has been a result of several weeks spent moving to a new rental unit, spotty internet access, comedic levels of exhaustion, and a deep angst about the new, horrifically-neglected "garden" I have inherited with my new home (the "lawn" was 3-feet tall upon my arrival and the bones of no fewer than 3 Christmas trees are still strewn about like forgotten casualties). Such potential, and me without a moment or dollar to spare.
I also apologize for leaving nothing but a bizarre cliffhanger of an unexplained poem to hold my place.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Spring 1

Between each season's gasp for breath
A moment's leased relief
Does lapse into the next refrain
of bludgeoning extreme

Then comatose, as excess yawns
A snarl of rotted teeth
that chewed each cloying bloom and leaf
that bored the hungry need

For color after lifeless months
Of cold
And gray
And why?s
For the next pneumatic pulse of life
To a torpid, endless sky

As soon as wonder wakes, afraid
that Spring this time forgot
To paint the numbers autumn fell
Or connect the frozen dots

Then latitude of sudden swoons
and drops into the light
To set ablaze each thylakoid
And let the next Spring's bludgeon fly

Friday, May 22, 2009

Leave Something To The Professionals

Imagine, if you will, hiring a plumber to fix your broken sink (go ahead, really let your imagination fly with this one). Now imagine that you, in a fit of poorly aimed confidence, decide to go ahead and buy the parts to fix the sink ahead of time, so that when the plumber arrives, s/he will only have to put the parts together in the right order and, voila, you'll have a fixed sink. This is as good a time as any to point out that you, unfortunately, do not know the first thing about plumbing equipment or fixtures beyond a vague recollection that, if you happen to be a cartoon Italian plumber, pipes and tubes allow access to dark underworlds where floating coins abound. Basically, your decision to buy parts ahead of time is starting to seem a bit foolhardy. But you soldier on. As you stand in the plumbing aisle of Home Depot, agog and astonished by the multitude of choices and complete lack of floating coins or bricks to smash your head against, you decide to make your selections based on aesthetics, reasoning that any decent plumber should be able to make do with the parts at hand, and beside that you've taken a liking to the little elbow-shaped tubes. So you buy a box and head home to meet the plumber.

The plumber gives you a long, strange look.

Being a professional, s/he jury-rigs a contorted though admittedly cool-looking solution worthy of MacGyver, then tells you not to turn on the water until s/he can get the hell out of there.

The sink predictably and catastrophically fails. What do you learn?

A ridiculous scenario, to be sure, but in principle not so different from one I experienced earlier today. A certain "quirky" client who by her own admission cannot tell the difference between weeds and desirable plants in her yard decided to hire professional gardeners to do some outdoor containers for her. So far so good; I love designing and working with container arrangements and I love showing the not-so-plant-savvy among us the surprising beauty and possibility lurking within the plant kingdom. So my disappointment was justifiably thick when I showed up to find the client had already gone to the nursery and purchased the plants she wanted us to use in her containers. Furthermore, the concept of sun vs. shade and plant's requirements thereof seemed entirely to evade her to the extant that I was forced to put Mexican feather grass in full shade and a beautiful hardy geranium ( G. 'Lawrence Flatman', I'm actually quite taken with this variety right now) in her cave of a covered porch. In the end, the containers looked all right, if a bit out-of-place (imagine a heavily shaded second story window planter filled with the aforementioned grasses, Carex and Dianella - it's like a weird spiky row of sentinels brooding over their own inevitable demise).
Now don't get me wrong... I don't expect everyone to have an intuitive grasp of plant cultural requirements and I don't discourage this kind of experimenting with unfamiliar plants - in fact I believe that the best way to learn gardening is by making your own mistakes and (hopefully) learning from them. I myself have killed enough plants to earn my victims a war memorial (case in point when I first took an interest in ornamental plants I failed to note the fairly important indoor/outdoor dichotemy and would just bring home any plant I liked from a nursery and stick it in my college dorm room, letting it put on a spectacular but ephemeral show for all my roomates). But I just don't see the point in paying professional gardeners to make your mistakes and kill your plants for you. Do not be fooled, while I have been compensated for putting your choices in soil, the accountability is still yours and I will not take responsibility for your doomed sentinels or poor old 'Lawrence Flatman' who, after all, only ever wanted a bit of sunlight.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Flame Throwers and Innocence

Spending 6 hours with a flame thrower should be every boys' dream. Such quality time could be spent vanquishing an imaginary and inhomogeneous blend of alien foes, movie villains and mean kids from school (maybe throw in a parent or two if you've been unfairly punished any time in the last week). An (arguably) healthy outlet for pre-angst angst and aggression, the flame thrower - usually manifested as an empty wrapping-paper tube - taught young boys that, while other weapons may be more practical, none would ever match the cathartic and purgative qualities of fire. It also taught - and even I won't argue the health angle here - that anything you didn't like or any problem you had could be burned right out of your life with no consequence but ash.

It's no wonder they don't give flame throwers to adults.

Yet strangely enough, I find that a chosen vocation of "gardening" has inexplicably (ok, maybe a little explicably) placed a real life flame thrower in my tool kit and at my disposal. It is not the backback-mounted hell-spigot I imagined as a child; it looks rather like a steel walking cane and runs on those little propane tanks you use for camping stoves. Its effective kill-range is about 6 inches, not 30 yards, and its raison d'etre is to vanquish not hordes of attacking enemies and pre-pubescent psychological idiosyncracies but rather all enemies tenacious enough to germinate and grow in the cracks of sidewalks and patios.
It is, in other words, a weed-burner (but that's just between you and me; if anyone else asks, it's a flame thrower). So you might imagine, correctly so, that 6 hours of wielding this device at dandelions would not achieve quite the same catharsis and joy as those childhood campaigns-of-fire. Granted, it is still kind of cool to stand and rain flame down upon these weeds which would in other circumstances bring me to my knees with one of any number of inadequate digging/scraping tools as my only defense. And if I really need to work through some aggression issues, I can perform some mental gymnastics through which I let dandelions become the face of my sundry problems and then symbolically burn those problems. But even this only works for about half an hour before my attantion wanders and I'm just weeding again. I can even hold pleasant, inane conversations with neighbors and passers-by while operating the torch.
That's when it hits me: have I become so jaded that flame throwers are no longer badass? What else will this profession steal from me? What other childhood-subverting tools will appear in the gardener's tool kit to rob our imaginations of their most powerful weapons? Fertilizer hand-grenades? Stealth bomber crop-dusters? Lightsaber pruning saws? I'll not allow it.
It's up to us to reclaim our (somewhat violent, come to think of it) innocence. The next time you reach for a tool, look for its inner badassness. Fend off an alien-vampire with nothing but your Felcos; tame a John Deere velociraptor and ride it around with an extendable pruning saw as your lance; come on people, those fancy Japanese pruning and weeding tools are just asking to be part of a ninja's arsenal (you are a ninja, aren't you!?).
And for God's sake, the next time you're using a weed-burner, remember: it's not a weed-burner, it's a flame thrower!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Make Yourself at Home

Maybe I started the pole beans inside too soon, maybe winter lasted too long; whatever the case, by the time these were cut out of the window blinds, they had flowered and begun to set fruit. So next year, when you start seeing pole beans alongside the countless Ficus and Dracaena of box-store houseplant displays, you'll know who to thank.
(Photo by Roni)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Not The "I" Word

It occurs to me that perhaps I've been unfair towards certain plants - let's not call them "invasive"- which display a certain spirited inclination towards reproduction. Via sexual or asexual means, these plants (let's not call them "invasive") spread themselves in an opportunistic fashion; the tiniest patch of bare ground given a why-not?-shrug and summarily inundated with cheap, plentiful seeds (I'm looking at you, little weedy violets) or subverted by runners and rhizomes with all the subtlety of a teenager's attempt at casual intimacy (that's you, bindweed).
But perhaps not all of these "opportunists" should be treated equally. Some are truly despicable (please refer to my Nightmare Weed post) but we should not let these cast a pall over all vigorous, sexually-enlightened plants (I'd still rather not call them "invasive"), some of which have undeniably positive aesthetic or structural qualities. Surely everyone has a few "self-seeders" or "naturalizers" (or whatever the euphemism du-jour is) which they are willing to unleash upon their garden with the full knowledge that many hands-and-knees hours will be spent in quarantine mode, futilely attempting to restrict them to one corner of one bed.
I realize I'm opening pandoras box here because in gardening, one man's treasure is another man's vile, loathesome weed the mere mention of which is wont to launch a tirade towards or physical assault of the mentioner. Therefore, I'll go first. These are plants towards which I will cast a blind eye in a client's garden, even if I have been more or less commanded to remove them. At the end of my day, there is just no cold ruthless blood left in my veins for these misunderstood gems (let's not call them "invasive", please).

  • Centaurea montana - LSD flower, as I like to call it, as in God must have been tripping if he made this. Fellow Blotanists may recognize this as my "favorite flower". No matter how much these spread throughout a garden and how hard they can be to remove, I always have to stop and stare when they are in bloom. Like some cerulean, radial sea creature that grew a stem and joined the Asteraceae, I never get tired of them.
  • Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora - I frankly don't care if these take over a bed; I just can't stir up animosity for something that blooms so brilliantly during a time of the year when many other things are tiring-out (here in the Northwest anyway). Plus, if you really do want to remove them, the corms pop out like they were just waiting for you to come along and grant them the pleasure of being ripped out of the ground.
  • Carex 'Frosted Curls'- I was initially alarmed by how quickly these self-sowed in a bed that I planted. The alarm quickly turned to delight when I realized that a plant chosen for its unique cool-green color and soft, mounded habit made an even stronger statement in greater numbers (plus it allowed me steal one of the seedlings for myself).
That's all for now, let me have it if you hate any of these, but you have to give me some alternatives.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Rites of Spring

As it turns out, the ideal season for garden blogging (i.e. when there is more going on outside than just bad weather) happens to coincide with the ideal season for actually working in the garden...
and for weddings...
and bachelor parties...
and moving...
and birthdays...
and barbecues...
and car problems...
and major computer malfunctions...

Such that precious little time seems to be left over for actually writing/complaining about all the above.
This has been a grievous omission on my part and I strive to never again be absent for so long. I shall steadfastly forgo all momentous occasions, necessary life changes, and important repairs in order to better tend this blog and follow others. After all, is gardening without smartass snark and cynicism really gardening at all?
I didn't think so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Please consider this a Public Service Announcement.
(Cue sappy TV PSA keyboard music)

It could happen to you; it could happen to someone in your family - maybe it already has.
Every year, thousands of people are betrayed. They put on a grim smile for the sake of their loved ones; they try to look happy, but the betrayal leaves them empty inside...
They bought the wrong grass.
Walking through their neighborhood one evening, they saw a beautiful clump of Miscanthus sinensis rustling gently in the breeze. Not knowing what it was called, they visited their local garden center and requested the "tall, pretty grass with feathery flower heads", trusting an employee to fill in the blanks, pat them on the back and send them on their way with the perfect plant. Instead, they got...

Pampas Grass.

For these people, it is already too late; there is no known cure for Pampas Grass (Cortaderia selloana). Symptoms of this grass include an increasingly ratty, congested crown, unwanted reseeding, enormous size that will dwarf any neighboring plants, and hellaciously sharp leaf margins that will draw blood from casual passers-by (Miscanthus is no kitten itelf, but it will seem like a cuddly ball of fur next to the scrap-metal jaws of Cortaderia).
If someone you know has Pampas Grass, the best thing you can be is a supportive, understanding friend. Tell them their grass looks nice, even if it doesn't; comment on its lovely plumes. Do not mention or expose them to Miscanthus, as this will result in severe scowling and fits of colorful language; do not, under any circumstances, approach their Pampas Grass itself without full-body protection.
The only way to prevent Pampas Grass is through education. Know your grasses, by name if possible. If you reach to touch a grass at a nursery and an employee lunges to stop you for fear of a wrongful injury lawsuit, do not purchase the grass. If a nursery tries to sell you a plant you suspect to be Pampas Grass without thourough disclaimer, report them to your better business bureau immediately.

It's your garden, take charge of it. Too many people have been betrayed. Too many people suffer needlessly. Together, we can put an end to unwanted Pampas Grass.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Disenchantment

Zone 8 is not all it was cracked up to be.
At first, after moving to Seattle from zone 6, it seemed an impossible Promised Land. Here a Phormium stretching to the rooftop; there a gaggle of Hebe without a care in the world; Loropetalum? What prodigal son of the Hamamelidaceae was this? I thought I'd arrived in a city of fools... surely these horticultural aberrations would perish at the first sign of Winter and the comically misinformed gardeners responsible would slink back to the nursery, tails between legs, to buy boxwood and Euonymous like any self-respecting resident of the northern latitudes.
Then, after my first Winter here, I began to believe. Despite a long, cold season, the giant Phormium were still standing; 7 ft tall Nandina not only survived, but actually kept their leaves! Waterfront, outdoor-pizza-oven clients kept their picture-perfect gardens picture-perfect. Oh, what a wonderland. I ran through the hills (streets) and meadows (alleys) spreading the word:
Plant anything you want! This is an enchanted place! Rules of hardiness do not apply here! Sure, put in some tree ferns, why not!? This is free love, for gardeners!

Now, a year and one voracious Winter later, nary a Phormium stands in the city; Nandina leaves clog the gutters; Hebe skeletons jut from yards like the bones of some terrible plague.
This is the disenchantment.
Seattle got cocky and wanted the modern Mediterranean/California garden it saw in all the magazines. Our experimentation with marginally-hardy plants became a fetish without which we could not derive pleasure from our gardens. I understand the desire to constantly push the envelope of hardiness in order to expand our plant palette, but we should not strive to be something we are not. This is not a Tuscan villa; we are not sipping Cabernet on a veranda in Napa Valley. This is Western Washington, and it's time to relish our unique place in the world. Our climate fosters beautiful gardens, but only if we allow the right plants and maintain a healthy skepticism of those which seem too good to be true.
Zone 8 would do well to take a lesson from zone 6: don't get attached.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go run through the hills and meadows spreading some apologies.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Safe Date

Snow again this morning; Mother Nature's April Fools I suppose.
I'm puzzling over the whole "Average Last Frost Date" and "Frost Safe Date" thing. With many times more snow events this Winter than in any I can recall, I feel my weary body numbly slogging towards April 15 (the supposed Safe Date for Seattle) as though it might actually offer some physical sanctuary. I mean theoretically it's all over by then. No more scraping the windshield with a credit card while cursing my baffling inability to purchase a legitimate ice-scraper; no more storm systems piled up on the coast colliding with cold Canadian air masses like drunk party guests vying for the bathroom; no more staring blankly at the frozen tundra of a client's garden wondering if I should pursue my lifelong dream of doing anything but this. After the 15th, Winter just throws in the towel and starts getting fat for the off-season, because that's the Safe Date, right?
Well, however much faith you place in your given frost safe date, I'm willing to bet that someone somewhere cranked through some serious high-school level statistics in order to toss out that date with any measure of certainty. Accordingly then, someone somewhere must have applied similar statistical analyses to arrive at the average last frost date (unless these people, wherever they are, got drunk and are just throwing darts at a calendar even as we speak). Now, if I understand averages correctly (and thanks to 16 years in public education, I think I do) this average last frost date should fall somewhere in the middle of the range of possible last frost dates. So for every year like this year (and last year, come to think of it) where we have snow in April, there should be another year where Winter ducks out early to go fishing, say sometime in early March. For an impatient gardener or farmer this means that every year a wager must be placed, the stakes of which are whatever frost-tender plants or seedlings you throw into the fray of high-school statistics, weather patterns and drunken darts. Last year, I placed my bets on late March and consequently lost my whole first batch of vegetable starts. This year, so far, I've had more patience and kept my starts inside; as a result, I have pole beans growing up and through my window blinds. If this pays off because of an exceptionally late frost, then next year I'm doubling down and shoving everything outside in mid February. That's how the Average Last Frost Date works, right?

Friday, March 27, 2009


Under the soil
Just an inch or two
All the worms
Until you go digging
And you always go digging
Turning spades and thoughts in turn
To see what's under squirm

Friday, March 20, 2009

Curse Of The Hederahelix

I do not care about your hardwood floors. Nor do I care about your designer furniture, each piece of which undoubtedly cost more than my car. I do not care about anything behind those massive windows and that meticulously maintained siding. If you hire me to increase the curb appeal (if I may bandy about a buzzword) of your soon-to-hit-the-market home, I just don't care about anything other than how your yard looks and how it compliments the exterior of your home. Rest assured this is not apathy on my part; I am a gardener and it is my job to know how plants and landscapes affect people on both a conscious and subconscious level. Nowhere on my resume does it mention 20th century movements in interior design, and your expertise clearly ends at the walls of your house or else you would not have sought my help.
Therefore: get rid of the ivy.
Trust me.
If you take from me one piece of advice and ignore all else, let this be it.
I'm sure the thought of English Ivy sends all sorts of classical, white-marble allegories prancing through your head, but to many people this green, snaking, choking beast represents something else entirely. It is the raw, coiled potential to destroy a yard. Slayer of trees, devourer of beds, no matter how well and often you trim it back, some potential home buyers will see that ivy for what it is: doom (I don't know if there's a buzzword for this in relation to "curb appeal", we'll just say "curb terror" and it's probably something you want to avoid). Even its Latin name, Hedera helix, seems more mythical serpent monster than plant.


You know... come to think of it, keep the ivy if you want, I have a plan that's bigger than you or your house. I believe through the widespread dissemination of English Ivy's Latin name, spoken in hushed, fearful tones we could start to create the sort of urban legend fear we need to discourage the use and tolerance of ivy. For example, picture two huddled strangers on the sidewalk:
"It can't be true!"
"It is true! My sister heard from her mailman, and he knows the whole neighborhood. He's seen the Hederahelix in at least 2 yards on our street alone!"
"Oh God What do we do!? I heard of a town in Oregon that saw signs of the Hederahelix and 3 months later... the town was gone! No one could find it and no one heard from any of its citizens again! What do we do!?"
"Try to calm down. I want you to run to the hardware store and buy the biggest pair of pruning shears you can find. Do you know how to make napalm?"
"OK, that's OK. I know you're lethal with a pair of shears, they'll have to do. Once you have those, run home and be with your children, they need you."
"But then what do we do?!"
"Then...we pray."

That's it, this will work. Curb appeal be damned, I have an urban legend to create.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What I Tell Myself

What do you tell yourself?
During the morning commute
And the long ride home
And the interim
To make the whiled hours seem worthwhile

From what perspective
Do you watch your hands
Watch your lips move
From whose approving eyes
Do you see your own work

Outside a mortgage bank
I deadhead pansies
and sweep the sidewalk
Inside I water the plants
and try not to be seen

Maybe when folks see
(in these difficult times)
a bank with clean walks
and cheerful flowers
They think that...
Things will be OK

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Smokin' Hot Bags

Thank you all for being here today. After careful consideration and discussion with my family, I have decided to announce that I am now accepting bids to endorse hand-warmer products...
Now please, quiet please...
I'll wait...
Thank you.
To your cries of "SELL OUT!" I can only say this: I use hand-warmers almost every day in the Winter anyway. I can only imagine how many hundreds or thousands (millions?) of people see me, shivering in the garden, pausing every five minutes to put down my pruners, gingerly remove my inadequate gloves and stuff my hands into my pockets, seeking the tiny, warm sandbaggish things waiting there for me. An over-shod gardener with poor circulation and no apparent regard for physical appearances consistently using a product for all to see? You can't dream up that kind of marketing opportunity. Now, I know what you're all thinking (mostly because some of you seem to be shouting it at me): he's a gardener; he must be loaded; what use could he possibly have for more money?
Well, put simply, I have a lifestyle to maintain, and I'll not apologize for my excesses. If eating more than one meal a day makes me a glutton, so be it. If having a 21" TV and a VCR makes me a shameless gadget-head, so be it. If wearing a completely different pair of socks every day of the week makes me a fashion slave, so be it. If carrying my garden tools around in the back of my Civic hatchback seems like a waste of a beautiful luxury automobile, so be it. I've earned this life, and your jealousy doesn't make it wrong.
Excellent question, thank you.
No, I will not be endorsing any hand-warmer product currently available on the market. I will be holding out for a custom line of hand-warmers specially-tailored to my needs.
How will they differ from currently available hand-warmers? Well, ultimately that will be up to the R+D department of the company placing the highest bid for my endorsement, but I do have a few ideas of my own. For example, commercial hand-warmers all seem to have a common and irritating design quirk: they do not work. I would like very much to endorse a hand-warmer product that actually works. A good way to achieve this goal, that I can see, is to create some kind of hand-warmer that gets warm and then makes your hand warm upon contact. It should be able to do this even when it is cold outside, because I have been known to use hand-warmers when air temperatures drop below my core body temperature. Beyond that, it's just cosmetics. I guess glow-in-the dark would be pretty cool.
Oh, I'll leave the naming to marketing, I'm not picky. Maybe something like "Smokin' Hot Bags" or "Pleasantly Warm Pouches" or "Hands Here For Heat" or, I don't know "Touch Me, Sexy" (I've been told that sex sells). Yeah, any of those would be just great.

Thank you all, I hope this will not change our relationship or how I am seen in the public eye.

I would like bidding to start at $80,000 per public use of hand-warmer product. For $100,000 I will turn towards my audience and utter a trademarked and memorable catch phrase.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

11 Pages

11 pages... intricately formatted, photographed, broken down and compiled... the pruning of modern bush roses in a rather tedious nutshell. The book itself shall remain unnamed, suffice it to say it is a much-read and highly regarded pruning guide published under the authority of the... oh, we'll call it the Shmamerican Shmorticultural Shmoshmiety. After these 11 pages is a small box with a photo depicting a disembodied pair of arms holding a hedge trimmer that has just blithely chopped through a rose bush at knee height. The gist of the accompanying text: feel free to disregard the preceding 11-page rose-pruning treatise. Instead, why not just whack the things down at about, oh, here, and be done with it. Apparently recent research has indicated that this crude (and probably satisfying) treatment may produce a healthier, better-blooming plant than all the conjured intricacy and lore of rose-husbandry through the ages.
I, for one, find this hilarious, and would like nothing better than to swing a machete through some hybrid teas to demonstrate the progress of modern horticulture. But I cannot. No, I must memorize the 11 pages that don't involve rosewhacking, like homework after years of freedom, and regurgitate them the next day in an earnest bid to convince a new client that I know roses like the back of my hand and love them like the air in my lungs.
In truth, I know roses like the inside of my lungs and love them like air in a hose.
Don't get me wrong, I'm always down for a good stop-and-smell-the-roses, I just have no desire to play patient nanny to a prima donna brat of a plant like the modern rose. Any organism that requires constant aseptic attention to avoid disfiguring disease and infestation could only be the work of centuries of human meddling... akin to certain dog breeds that cannot even be birthed without human intervention. Give me Rosa nutkana or R. rugosa any day, with cheerful hips and heavenly fragrant, simple, pretty flowers whose reproductive structures have not been sacrificed in some horticulturalist's orgy of endless petals, petals and more petals.
Now, I realize that I may have just offended or alienated quite a few rose lovers (not to mention dog lovers) out there. To you I issue a challenge: prove me wrong. Show me that modern roses pull their own weight in the garden; tell me how to look past their horrible shape and thorny demeanor; tell me why I should spend another minute picking off black spot riddled leaves; tell me why I should put up with a patented, trademarked problem child when its native cousin is growing carefree along the side of the road.
Do not let this bitterness and sarcasm fool you, I genuinely wish to be convinced otherwise. One of the things I love about gardening is how often I am proven wrong and end up eating my own words; I love rediscovering plants that I had written off long ago. Gardening passions are contagious, and sometimes just hearing someone get excited about a plant, even when it is not a favorite of mine, is enough to make me re-evaluate my prejudice. So rose lovers, get excited, defend your precious pretties; tame my tongue and sheath my machete, I am an easy convert.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dear Nandina

Dear Nandina domestica,

There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just come right out with it...
We're through.
The love I felt for you so long ago, at the nursery, is gone. You were the perfect plant: beautiful color; mostly evergreen but sensitive enough to drop a few leaves if it got really cold; a texture and growth habit all your own; and my God, when you first let me see your little red berries I nearly lost it right there. I bragged about you to everyone I saw; you were my heavenly bamboo baby.
But now that I've gotten to know you better and I've seen what you're like away from the nursery, I know you're not the plant for me.
You grow taller than is good for you and it makes you flop over. There, I said it. I know we've argued about this before, but you just don't seem to change. No matter how many times I pick you up and faithfully stake you to bigger and bigger stakes, you escape, or if you're being belligerent you just break the stake outright, and either way, the next time I see you, you're flopped over again. I can't be the only strong one in this relationship.
And there's another thing... even when there's not enough room and even when I ask you not to, you start spreading and suckering. Well I've got something to tell you: YOU'RE NOT THE ONLY PLANT IN THE GARDEN, SO STOP ACTING LIKE YOU ARE!
I'm sorry, sometimes you just make me so angry, and I don't want to be angry anymore.
I hope we can still be friends, and if you're open to it, it'd be cool if you'd still let me see your berries once in a while, but I'll understand if that's too hard.

I'll always remember you (mostly because you're in everybody's yard)


P.S. I've been seeing your dwarf siblings for some time now. They're beautiful and they know their place. I'm not trying to hurt you, I just want to be honest; they give me what I need.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Fertile Warehouse

This year is to be my grand experiment in urban agriculture. For the past several years I have, as a hobby, grown a few edibles in pots on whatever outdoor surface in whatever sliver of sunlight my rental unit afforded me at the time. Results have included some mildewy peas, grumpy tomatoes, leggy herbs bolting towards reproduction like exceptionally hormonal teenagers, and a salvaged fruiting fig that may as well just join the rest of my indoor Ficus for all its prudish disinclination towards actually fruiting. But this year is different. Having managed to stay put in the same apartment for more than one season and having had marginal success with edibles last summer, I am ready to unleash the repressed farmer within. I will push the envelope of urban gardening to see just how much of my own produce I can produce from nothing but pots on a patio.
So far, this has translated into much more planning much earlier than I am used to. Unable to work my acreage with a team of horses or a tractor (these being somewhat overkill for the 10 or so incongruous square inches of actual earth to be found between the sidewalks, fences and parking lots which constitute my back yard), I must go out and find (i.e. buy) soil and containers in which to put it. This, when you think about it, is a strange but not necessarily interesting twist on the hunter/gatherer versus sedentary farmer dichotomy: I am one in order to become the other.
Moving on...
The point is, because of my stubborn determination to grow food where none should grow, I find myself in surreal places like Home Depot and Costco seeking the cheapest price for earth and pots: two of the first things humans ever knew what to do with. It came as no surprise to me, when I first braved the rush-hour madness of wholesale consumerism at its finest (aka Costco), that they indeed had the largest, most absurdly reasonably-priced bag of potting soil I'd ever seen (not just soil mind you, but if I've interpreted the bag marketing correctly, a whole potting lifestyle: with more satisfaction than a life of charity and more trademarks, patents and overall technology than cell-phones from 8 years ago). So I swallowed my pride with a bit of my soul and lugged a bag onto my oversized shopping cart (how the average Costco patron manages this feat is beyond me; I move dirt for a living and still had to concentrate mightily on thinking un-hernia thoughts). What did surprise me was the semi-aisle across from the potting soil devoted exclusively to fruit trees and blueberry bushes.
These plants, stacked and strangled by packaging, lit by a distant aircraft-hangar fluorescence, seemed as out-of-place as it's possible for plants to be. I picked up a two-pack of blueberry bushes (two different varieties even, for better pollination!) and began questioning my plan. Is this what it means to hybridize the urban and rural tendencies of humanity? Do city-dwellers get to taste the fruits of their own labor only if most of the mystery (and labor, come to think of it) is removed, all the complicated parts filled in for them? Here is part A (soil) and part B (plant); add part B to part A, wait 5 months and enjoy! Repeat the following year! Does this offer any genuine connection to our agricultural heritage? Do we feel like farmers? If Costco started selling live cattle and, across the aisle, brand new cow-slaughtering machines from GE, would they make ranchers of us all?
In the end, I decided that there are worse hobbies to have than amateur gardener/farmer (like amateur cow-slaughterer, for one) and that if busy people can find a few minutes in which to put a plant in a pot and water it a few times and get a few blueberries out of it, they probably feel a measure of happiness and satisfaction, even if it doesn't make them a bonafied dirt-whisperer with an acres-long gaze and dreams of the fertile crescent. If you think about it, the first farmers must have themselves been amateurs whose curiosity or desperation (likely both) led them to add part B to part A. So maybe the Costcoans are channeling that ancient spirit. Even if not, the more people growing their own healthy food, the better, and if Costco blueberries are a step in that direction then so be it.
At least that's what I told myself as I waited in the quarter-mile long checkout line with a shiny new shrink-wrapped two-pack of blueberry plants in my cart.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dead Wood

These are the calm months, in the garden. Autumn's endless leaves have been wrangled, every last one caught and bagged, accounted for. The debris and casualties of the winter's worst storms (knock on wood) have finally stopped piling up. Conifers have shed the bulk of their old, "used" photosynthetic material for the year (don't let anyone tell you that evergreens don't drop leaves every year... I've spent countless hours trying to rake up the needles and scales of pines, hemlocks, firs, Chamaecyparis and Thuja... they wait until the gardener is finally done picking up the big papery leaves of deciduous trees and then, right when he hauls the last lawn bag to the curb and goes inside for a well-deserved beer, they start to sprinkle their small brown needles like a quiet rain that covers all and will not be easily raked, pushed, cajoled or convinced into any sort of pile, forcing our gardener to abandon all thoughts of refreshment and instead to spend the next five weeks or so picking up pine needles with a pair of tweezers).
So what occupies the hardworking gardener during the mid-winter doldrums? For the most part, a bit of pruning and a lot of deadwooding. Now, any resource will tell you that the three D's of pruning (Dead, Diseased and Damaged wood) can and should be removed any time of the year. If you have one garden and much spare time, this is good advice. If, however, you spent most of the year divided between 30 different gardens, frantically speeding from one to the next doing your blessed best to delay their seemingly inevitable descent into chaotic wilderness, you rarely have the opportunity to spend a few hours with your head stuck in a shrub snipping and snapping little pieces of dead wood.
It is only when the rest of the world has turned calm and cool that one finds time to take a breath, clear the mind and look closely inside for the sick and damaged bits that stick out at all angles, subliminally crowding and frustrating what could be a simpler, more beautiful form. These neglected, aborted stubs can become infected, trap other detritus, and render stagnant what should be an open, freely circulating structure. They do not contribute anything; they are not helping anything. When after a long year they are at last patiently sought and removed, one marvels at the transformation, wondering why these things are allowed to accumulate, why we can't see and be rid of them sooner, before the wan clutter tangles with healthy branches and we are confused. As with other things necessary and overlooked we wonder: why can't we make this more important? But such questions are answered quietly, and such answers are often buried under the next season's color and business, forgotten and withered, to be removed as dead wood the next time we find time for such things.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

My Shame

A new client in a new neighborhood, with a new garden... good, I'm excited, I'm like a hunter in a foreign land who just overheard a slurred bit of drunken machismo at the local tavern about an unslayable beast, all fangs, speed and epic symbolism. You don't find it, it finds you, etc. etc. etc. Within every misbegotten landscape and neglected "garden", handed over from one apathetic homeowner to the next like moldy drywall, is something elusive and powerful. Many have tried, and more or less failed to capture it...
Here I may as well slay the hunting analogy, as there is an undeniable lack of harrowing kill-or-be-killed importance to the taming of a feral garden. There is, nevertheless, an urgency felt by the passionate gardener to do something. Make it beautiful, make it useful, release it to nature, dig a series of pointless but satisfying holes, raze the whole damn thing and start over if you have to; don't just let it languish.
In the case of the aforementioned new client my charge was simple: pick up dead leaves, destroy weeds, render hedge-choked paths passable and, finally, find all deliciously sweet smelling winter-blooming shrubs and spread shit on them. Well, more correctly, spread mulch below them and mulch is only, I don't know, about 50% shit.
Now, at first glance, spreading foul-smelling but nutritious excrement beneath the midwinter olfactory sirens of Sarcococca and Hamamelis would seem to fit the requisite parameters of doing something, but I have never been shy about my undying love for winter-blooming shrubs. Hamamelis almost singlehandedly make the winter bearable around here, and if not for the potted H. x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' outside my door that I faithfully stop and smell every morning, I would despair of ever seeing this frozen winter fog give way to Spring. So being instructed to desecrate a glowing and sublime 10'x10' H. x intermedia 'Jelena' in a clients' garden was, to me, tantamount to betrayal.
Since this is, after all, my blog, I could easily make up an inspiring and entertaining yarn here about how I told the clients to shove it, that no amount of money, even in a torpid economy, would be worth the shame to all involved of subverting the citrusy delight of witchhazel with the ammoniacal stench of some foul mulch, and furthermore shame on you for suggesting such a thing, and even furthermore, you don't deserve this horticultural treasure so sit there and watch me as I gently dig it up and tote its fragrant bulk off to sanctuary (black and white shot of me at dusk, gigantic witchhazel perched Atlas-like between my shoulder blades, as I trot down Queen Anne Avenue into the silhouetted skyline of Seattle, townsfolk leaning out of windows showering me with confetti and rose petals, desperately holding out babies for me to bless, give my name to and possibly sire siblings for).
But not so long ago, I promised to never abuse the fantastic power I assume with the title of Blogger. So if you must know, I spent two days toting buckets of mulch from an old pickup truck and unceremoniously tossing it will-he nill-he beneath every plant in sight (black and white shot of same), including 'Jelena' and the lovely hedge of Sarcococca confusa just coming into bloom. How do I sleep with myself having so compromised my gardening integrity? I go home, inhale deeply of the Sarcococca hedge outside my own walls, bury my face in 'Arnold Promise' and remind myself that someday, when I am King of all Gardens and rule with an Ironwood fist, I will see my clients against the wall for the crimes they have made me commit.
(This may be a bad time, but in the next election, be sure to vote for me as King of all Gardens; I will be running on the Ironwood Fist ticket.)