Almost Silent Sunday: Lily “Golden Splendour”

I intended to beaver up a writing-related post this week, but couldn’t marshal my thoughts. So the trumpet lily “Golden Splendour” must stand in for me. It is well-named — huge flowers on five-foot stems. I only wish the photos could convey the luxurious perfume as well.

Lily “Golden Splendor”

Confession: the photos are from 2010 and 2012. The lilies are blooming right now and look just like this, but I have them netted against deer. Our current gang of urban deer eat all sorts of things — fennel and pelargoniums (geraniums) as well as the usual daylilies and asters. I didn’t want to take a chance with “Golden Splendour.” The black plastic netting and the clothespins holding it to the stakes look a bit weird and detract from the beauty of the flowers.

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7 pots near the pond bench: 2 hellebores, 1 variegated hosta, 1 variegated grass, 1 blue poppy, 1 empty, 1 fragment

Going to Pots

A giant blue glazed pot, a big green and blue one from Vietnam, two ochre pots with brown Chinese dragons, curvaceous plastic urns from the Canadian Tire store, dozens of repurposed black nursery pots, terracotta pots in a vast range of sizes and states. Collectively, they are homes to mature hostas, standardized privets, auricula primulas, hearty tomato plants, perennials in waiting, small seedlings, and newly rooted cuttings.

Hosta in a big pot from Vietnam

Earlier this year, I did an inventory of the plants in my garden that are growing in pots. The total came to sixty-two. That was before I added nine tomato plants and a dozen or so young perennials grown from seed or cuttings. The current total must be around seventy pots.

Heuchera coral bells "Timeless Orange" and pot "Toga Bell Yama, olive black"
Glazed ceramic pots from Asia and a basic black nursery pot (on the right).

The pots vary in size from four inches in diameter to two feet. Most of the smaller ones are plastic — reused nursery pots. The biggest ones are wooden half-barrels and a couple of Chinese “egg jars.” At one time, these big clay jars were made to ship preserved eggs from China. Chinatown grocery stores sold the empties quite cheaply to gardeners and others as impressive large containers. I don’t think they’re as readily available now, so I’m grateful to have two of them. One is positioned near the pond and occupied by a Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum). The other anchors a group of clay and ceramic pots near the front steps. It’s rather wasted on a plant of Dusty Miller. I really should think of a more worthy use for it.

Big Chinese pot ("egg jar") and small white ceramic pot
Big Chinese “egg jar” with dragon and white ceramic pot.

In addition, I have a few other glazed ceramic pots, ranging from large to medium size. Then there is a gang of the common unglazed terracotta pots from Italy. I like them, but they can’t be relied upon to withstand freezing temperatures. Eventually they crack and break, which is why I also have a shocking number of half-pots, quarter-pots, and a bucketful of potsherds. Plastic is practical but can look cheap and ugly, especially the nursery pots. They eventually get brittle too. I have a couple of good quality plastic pots that look like terracotta from a distance.

The two pots in front are plastic; the one to the rear on the left is unglazed terracotta; Chinese “egg jar” in the centre background.

Seven Truths About Pots

  • Pots provide plants with ideal little environments — the perfect soil and no competition from other plants, unless the gardener doesn’t bother to remove volunteers and weeds. I know this from experience, having lost a couple of potted lilies to hearty invaders.
  • Potted plants can be moved indoors or under some sort of cover for the winter months. This makes it possible to grow things like lemon trees in places with cold winters — as long as the gardener has the strength to move the pots, that is. I have a jade plant and a variegated weeping fig that summer outside. A special set of straps makes it easy less difficult to lug them in and out. The operation does take two, however.
  • Pots can be moved around to ensure optimal light exposure. They can be positioned strategically to enhance a planting when in bloom and whisked offstage when finished. But see above re lugging.
  • Pots need to be watered, sometimes as frequently as once or even twice a day, depending on weather and the size of the occupant. At its peak, a tomato plant’s roots totally fill the pot and pump through a lot of water, maintaining itself and plumping up the tomatoes. Forgetting to water, even for a few days, means rapid decline and death. Unlike plants in the ground, potted plants can’t put forth roots to seek moisture. They’re like caged animals that need to be fed.
  • Some woody plants (shrubs and trees) confined to pots stage breakouts by growing roots through the drain holes in the bottom of the pot. If the soil below suits them, they take off and grow. Forget being a potted subject. I’m a tree! The gardener must keep an eye on these sneaky individuals, and do some judicious root pruning now and then.
  • All gardeners acquire a shoal of plants in small pots — gifts from fellow gardeners, impulse buys, divisions, and “spares” of rooted cuttings or seed sowings. Very few plants will prosper indefinitely in a four-inch plastic pot. The gardener should have a plan for every one of these temporary pot denizens — a date by when it should be planted permanently, given away, or otherwise disposed of.
  • Permanently potted plants need annual maintenance. Fertilizer of some sort, up-potting or re-potting, trimming, etc. Some plants withstand being root-bound better than others. Delphiniums, for instance, need to be turned out of their pots annually, and then returned to them with fresh soil. Otherwise, the soil becomes compacted and the roots rot over the winter. Goodbye, delphiniums. But I can’t grow them well in the ground because they can’t deal with the maple tree roots. This year’s star specimen is five feet tall and has bloomed well. With the black pot hidden by other plants, it looks like part of the bed it’s in. (Just in case, I rooted a couple of its new shoots this spring. They are now potted up. Add two more to the inventory.)

Despite the above, pots (or, more broadly, containers) are an important feature of most gardens. They add life to hardscapes like decks and patios, and they make it possible to grow things not suited to one’s native ground. All gardeners want to grow stuff they can’t.

Potted delphinium in perennial bed
Five-foot-tall potted delphinium.

Summer/Winter Sale at the Smashwords Store

Every July, thousands of ebooks go on sale at the Smashwords Store. Many are free. This year the store has an updated interface to make browsing easier.

Anyone can set up a free account at Smashwords to buy and download ebooks in a variety of formats, including Kindle-friendly Mobi format.

The sale runs from 12:01 a.m. Pacific Daylight Saving Time July 1st (that’s right now, folks!) to 12 midnight July 31st.

All my books are enrolled in the sale. Click here for my author profile page and titles.

Paint chips, paint colours

Tints and Shades

I’ve mentioned recently that we have been repainting our living room. For 27 years, walls, ceiling, and woodwork were a dingy, flat, chalky-looking white. There was no incentive to change this until the sagging plaster of the ceiling was repaired. This happened early in May, when we finally connected with an actual, real live plasterer.

Once the plastering was finished, we beavered away for weeks, stripping multiple layers of old paint from the window frames, door frames, and baseboards. Stripping (with heat guns) and sanding (a miserable business, in my opinion) was the hardest part of the project. Picking colours was the most fun.

The world of paint colours is fascinating. Each one has the retailer’s alphanumeric code, but they all have names — in both English and French here in Canada. There must be people whose job it is to think up names for the thousands of paint colours available. It may seem frivolous and silly to name colours, but it does have a certain appeal.

I now have a sizable collection of paint chips for various pale greys and off-whites. It’s interesting to compare names to colours. Examples: Starry Night and Daydream have hints of violet; Rhinestone, Sea Salt, Tinsmith, On the Rocks, Skater’s Pond, Waterscape, and Rainwashed are all greys with different degrees of blue or green. Passive, not surprisingly, is a kind of beige. Some actually have colours in their names: Silver Strand, Slow Green, Lazy Gray, Agreeable Gray, Accessible Beige. (So I’m wondering — is there a Speedy Green? Industrious Gray? Or Aggressive Gray? What about Remote Beige? I could have fun with this!)

Paint colours, painting equipment
Paint stirring sticks showing the colours we used.

For what it’s worth, our renewed living room ceiling is now Alabaster (Albâtre). That colour, a warm white, is called Fuzzy Mitten (Mitaine en peluche) in another company’s scheme. The walls are Window Pane (Carreau), which is a lot like a tint elsewhere called Bluegrass White (Blanc bluegrass). It’s a pale and subtle mixture of blue and green. Parts of the woodwork are Morning Fog (Brouillard du matin), one of a million shades of grey.

Livingroom new paint and cove ceiling feature
These are the three colours in a corner showing a bit of the coved ceiling (which is the reason a plasterer was needed to do repairs).

Having worked so hard to strip layers of paint from the wood of the window and door frames, and because it’s old growth fir of a quality no longer available, we couldn’t bear to cover it with paint, so varnished most of it instead. Traces of the former paint are still visible in spots, but they are part of the house’s history, like scars and wrinkles on a body.

Old growth cedar wood grain ca. 1930
Close-grained old growth fir from 1930. Knot free. You can’t buy wood like this now.
Varnished wood showing old paint traces and wood grain
A bit of a window frame. Mostly varnished with grey accent.
Brass sundial, back garden, kale tree, arugula and lavender in bloom, May 2019

Retread #7: Gardening is Like Writing (and vice versa)

We’re still in the throes of painting the living room, after living with ugliness for nearly 27 years. (More than a quarter century!) The project has finally reached the actual painting stage, after weeks of surface prep. (Painting Secret #1: Surface prep takes way longer than painting, especially in old houses). So I’m still mining old posts. This one is from October 2013.

While cleaning up the debris from a recent windstorm [in October 2013], I thought, “This is sort of like editing — removing elements that obscure the beauties of the garden, analogous to deleting superfluous prose that obscures the niceties of plot and character.”

So are there other similarities [between gardening and writing]?

Scads of them: both are acts of creation, both involve a certain artistry, faith, hope, hard work and luck. Different types of gardens (herb, vegetable, rose, and rock gardens, for example) are analogous to fiction genres such as mystery, fantasy, and romance. Planning and planting a garden is very like starting to write a novel. There is an intention, but the conclusion is by no means guaranteed. Bad weather and the gardener’s lack of skill can prevent a happy outcome; in writing, the same results from the writer’s lack of skill and consequent lapse in enthusiasm. The metaphors of pruning and weeding as editing are obvious.

The difference is that a garden consists of living things. A failed garden is not a barren one; it’s just taken over by opportunistic plants, a.k.a. weeds. A failed novel is just a static text file or unvisited pile of paper. (The paper may eventually turn into a kind of compost heap, but that’s another issue).

That’s the most important difference between the two, I think. A gardener works in the whirl of the natural world. Weather, bugs, birds, deer, squirrels and raccoons leave their marks. Plants grow with incredible vigor or die unexpectedly. The garden changes in ways unintended by the gardener. Out there, I know I am not working alone.

In the writing room, there’s just me and my imagination. If I don’t spin something up from the black well, there is no progress. Yes, sometimes my characters have wills of their own. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. Sometimes the plot goes off in an unexpected direction. Writing in the white heat of obsession is an amazing experience. But I have to be present and willing to work, or nothing happens.

Gardening is real. There is nothing more real than dirt under the fingernails and the scent of lilies on a July evening. Virtual gardening is an impossibility; you have to get away from the screen. And writing, I’m coming to realize, is the same, for me anyway. In order to create original, long-form prose, I need hours of off-screen time, but achieving it is a lot harder than stepping out the door and picking up a spade, rake or set of clippers. I don’t know how to kindle the spark of obsession that makes writing the first priority.

Then there’s the question of success. Can a writer claim to be successful if no one reads or appreciates their work? I don’t think so. But I don’t care what anyone thinks of my garden. People do say nice things about it, and I like that, but if no one saw it or commented on it, I wouldn’t care. As long as I see beauty there at regular intervals, and healthy plants going through their annual cycles, I know I have success as a gardener. But in the absence of positive signals from others about my writing, it’s really hard to convince myself that I’m a good writer. And there is no simple way to elicit those positive signals. If you give someone a basket of vine-ripened, homegrown tomatoes, they are apt to thank you and praise your generosity. A 500 page novel, on the other hand, is a gift that demands [the receiver’s time and attention], and [it] does not always result in squeals of delight.

I was a gardener before I became a writer, and I will be a gardener as long as I am physically able, but I’m not sure I’ll always be a writer. The garden wins in the end.

Now, in 2019, I no longer believe that a piece of writing is nothing more than marks on paper or electronic blips on a screen. Writing is spun out of the writer’s brain, heart, and spirit, just as plants come from soil, water, and sunlight. Until the words are written down they are intangible, but no less organic for that. The marks and blips are only the medium.

And in 2013 I forgot to mention how well the physical aspect of gardening complements writing. It gets me away from the desk and computer, outside into Nature, and makes me pay attention to flowers, scents, and creatures. The exercise I get from gardening isn’t like a gym workout or going for a run. It’s incidental to the main activity, which may be raking leaves, shovelling compost, hefting the 20 kg sack of magic dust, holding a balanced position while tying a string to a stake, or bending and straightening in order to weed, plant, or just check on what’s going on.

While I’m in the garden, the writing part of my brain enters an inactive but receptive state in which new ideas can emerge without any pressure to crank out words. The trick, of course, is to remember them, but that’s easily done by means of a grubby little notebook and pencil stub in the pocket.

For me, gardening and writing are the perfect combination. Summer is prime time for gardening, and winter is ideal for writing. Dormant ideas can mature while I weed and deadhead, to grow and bloom in the dark time of the year.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

To be or not to be? Maybe not!

I’m reading a lot of posts these days about “crutch” words, weak words, and other words that writers should avoid. One of these pariah words is “was.” “Was”? Really? The past tense of the word designating existence or essence? “I am what I am” and similar declarations come to mind. I remembered a post I wrote in 2012 about this very topic. Instead of reposting it, I reworked it here to explore the issue in a more nuanced way.

In a recent meeting of my critique group [in 2012], someone said that “was” imparts an inherent passivity to a sentence or paragraph. I agree that the true passive voice often used in academic writing, as in “A was killed by B,” has (almost) no place in fiction writing. But does that apply to any instance of “was”?

This is a tough one [for me].  You can’t just sweep through a piece of writing vacuuming up every instance of “was” (or its plural cousin “were”). The easiest targets are instances of the true passive voice, such lumpy atrocities as “The sandwich was eaten by him.”  But what about “The house was red”? I don’t think “The house had been painted red,” is any improvement. “Had been” is “was” in disguise, isn’t it? “Was” (a three-letter, one-syllable word!) is indispensable in certain situations.

And what about “is”? “Is” is just “was” in present tense, but I don’t hear anyone accusing it of excessive passivity (probably because most fiction is written in the past tense).

Reading something about standards for metadata [in my job at the time], I found the following:  “Contexts are of two kinds: Events in which (or as a result of which) something changes, and States, in which they don’t.” In fiction writing, descriptions of linked events are desirable because they contain action, but descriptions of states, in which nothing changes, must be regarded with suspicion and kept to a minimum. As though description is an ever-present irritant, like ants at a picnic.

With respect to my fellow writers [I argued in 2012], before counting instances of  “was” (or any other word) in a sentence or paragraph, the critic should ask whether that sentence or paragraph reads smoothly and contributes to the story. “Was” after all, is the past tense of the verb “to be.” Being something or having a specific quality is inherently not an event but a state. I am old. You are young. He was young once. We will all be dead some day. Which is why it’s stupid to quibble about every instance of  “was”.

Okay, end of sermon circa 2012. Back to 2019. The nub of the problem is events vs. states. All you can do with a state is describe it. Describing something or someone in past tense is bound to require the word “was.” But too much description in a novel or story is about as welcome as ants at a picnic. Excessive description is surely the stuff readers skip (harking back to Elmore Leonard and his much-quoted rules).

Instead of devising some sort of circumlocution to avoid the forbidden word, maybe we should focus on chunks of description in which it’s found, and ask ourselves if they’re necessary.

This is the paragraph a couple of my fellow critiquers pounced on back in 2012, with the offending words emphasized:

Soon we were clear of the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance.  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady breeze, a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

As someone pointed out, every sentence has an occurrence of “was” or “were.” After some denial and grumbling, I made changes, reducing the instances of “was” and “were” from six to three (although “had been” is a member of the “was” family. This is how the paragraph looks in the published version of the book (except for the italics, of course).

By the time we left the harbour and cleared the treacherous ledge near its entrance, it was plain that we were to have one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  A steady breeze blew, a little south of west, ten knots, I estimated.  The waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed with pink and gold and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

Better, but not perfect. Returning to that paragraph yet again, with a freshly sharpened editor’s scalpel in hand, I could do the following (added words in ALL CAPS):

Soon we were clear of OUTSIDE the harbour and past the treacherous ledge near its entrance,  By now it was plain that it was going to be one of the blue and golden early autumn days that are a blessing of this coast.  There was a steady SOUTHWESTERLY breeze a little south of west, ten knots or so, I estimated, RIPPLED the dark blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. were dark blue, the mountains on its far side blue as well, their peaks white with eternal snow.  The sky, which had been a cold turquoise when we set out, was  flushed with pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

I deleted the weather forecast and the narrator’s musings, and whisked the snow-capped mountains out of sight. Here is the result, cleaned up:

Outside the harbour and the treacherous ledge near its entrance, a steady southwesterly breeze rippled the dark blue waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The sky, a cold turquoise when we set out, flushed pink and gold, and as we prepared to raise the sails the sun rose, flooding the world with colour and warmth.

Not a “was” in sight. Even I have to admit it’s better. I could work through the entire book (Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey), making improvements like these. But I’m not going to. That book is beyond the editing stage. It is what it is.

Image by Bischoff49 from Pixabay

Brass sundial, back garden, kale tree, arugula and lavender in bloom, May 2019

Retread #6: Gardening and Original Sin

This post from February 2012 (with highlighting and strikethroughs added) gets another outing while I strip old paint, sand freshly exposed old wood, and brood over paint colour chips. (“Window Pane” or “Rainwashed” for the walls? “Morning Fog” for the trim?) The garden has received 40 mm (1.58 inches) of rain in the past two weeks, something for which I am thankful.

When I was young and brilliant, it occurred to me that agriculture was the original Original Sin. I was studying archaeology at the time, specifically the origins of agriculture in the Middle East 10,000 years ago. Some of the earliest sites with evidence of early crop domestication are in the Zagros Mountains, which are in the same region where the Garden of Eden may have been. Aha! Two plus two equals… whatever you like, if you have enough imagination. At the time (the ’70s) I was also an environmental idealist aflame on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. (Better to be an inhumanist than a misanthrope, perhaps. But that’s another topic altogether).

When human beings began to manipulate their environment in order to favour the growth of particular plants, I reasoned, they broke a contract with the earth. They no longer simply took what was given to them, but thought they knew better and wanted to make things for themselves. Once begun, that process had its own logic. The initial improvements to species of grain-producing grasses and the environments in which they grew demanded further improvements and changes — permanent structures for storage, water diversion for irrigation of crops, roads and vehicles for transportation — civilization, in effect, which led to the internal combustion engine and the consumer society. Onward and upward, and look where we are now!

Human beings managed to exist as hunter-gatherers for many millennia, their tools made by bashing stones with other stones, and with fire a fickle servant, sometimes an enemy. Stones, fire and a way of life that changed very slowly. A mere ten thousand years of agriculture-based civilization has had a profound effect on the earth. And it all began (my youthful self reasoned) with the first gardens.

Why were the first ornamental gardens made, I wonder? I’ll bet it was when someone thought to arrange the plants grown for food in a visually pleasing way, or to include among them plants whose only purpose was to be beautiful. The grape vine in the mud-brick courtyard, with the perfume of roses and the sweetness of ripe figs — we who garden now can still appreciate that ancient image.

The present-day ornamental garden, some will argue, can hardly be blamed for environmental destruction. Suburbs were not built so that people could make gardens around their three bedroom bungalows. Many gardeners are keen to be green, especially if they also produce some of their own food. True, but what about all the chemicals and fertilizers dumped on that suburban feature, the perfect lawn? Not to mention all the drinking-quality water used to water it, and the gasoline-consuming, pollution-generating lawn mowers used to maintain it. Then there is the issue of invasive plants growing rampantly in ecosystems where they don’t belong — purple loosestrife, for example, which was brought to North America as an ornamental. We gardeners cannot consider ourselves collectively blameless, especially since most of us are also consumers and involuntary participants in the civilization that resulted from those first gardens in Eden.

Now that I’m older, things seem less neatly black and white than they once did. Original sin may indeed be a metaphor for agriculture, and by extension for gardening, but working the earth (as distinct from exploiting it) is a human activity with nuances of the sacred. The first farmers wove into their cultures ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the divine powers offended by their presumption. Our religions retain traces of these practices, and if cultivation of plants once set us on a path that distanced us from the earth, real farming and gardening may be ways to return.

Back garden overview June 2019 with kale tree in bloom

The Marvels of May

May is over, but here is a bouquet of sights from my garden gathered during that month. It was a great year for irises. Two managed to bloom that had not for years, probably due to shade and dry conditions. And I have blue poppies once more. I can’t take any credit for them as yet; if they survive the next winter to bloom again, I’ll have something to brag about. The mass of yellow bloom on the right side of the featured photo is a giant kale plant, almost a tree.

Pale yellow irises with dark red purple bearded irises
These irises (names unknown to me) have always been here. This year they’re blooming better than normal.
Pale yellow irises
Dependable pale yellow iris, type and name unknown to me. They’re increasing nicely in the dry shade of the back garden.
Bearded iris, white with blue edge
Surprise iris (not it’s real name). I vaguely remember it in bloom many years ago. I moved it to a better spot a couple of years ago; it must be happy there.
Purple bearded iris
Another surprise iris, a big purple one this time. No idea when I planted it. It must have languished bloomless for years, until now.
Primula auricula in bloom with tomato plants and potted dahlia with blooming thyme in background
Primula auricula. I have two plants, which both bloomed well this year. Small tomato plants in lower left corner, sprouting dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff” above.
White foxglove with thalictrum behind
Volunteer (meaning self-sown) foxglove. It’s right at the front of a border, but I’m glad I didn’t weed it out.
White foxglove spotless
Close up of the foxglove flowers. It’s totally spotless; a plant elsewhere has purple spots inside the flowers.
Urban deer
Trouble in paradise — plant-nibbling urban deer. They cruise by regularly and sample the garden buffet. On the plus side, I’ve seen them eating bindweed.
Mixed foliage in the front garden with "Pink Panda" ornamental strawberry flowers
Mixed foliage in the front garden, with a few flowers of ornamental strawberry “Pink Panda”

Here are four photos of the two blue poppy plants I bought a few months ago. Their labels call them Meconopsis sheldonii “Lingholm” (grandis).

Rosa glauca, red-leaf rose, blooming in the rain
Rain-washed leaves and flowers of the red-leaf rose, Rosa glauca. The inch or so of rain was most welcome.

I’m looking forward to June, but sorry to see the end of iris time.