Month: August 2010

Blasted, Battered and Bothered

Southern Vancouver Island enjoyed a couple of perfect late summer days early this week — high temperatures around 25 degrees C (about 75 F), nice calm evenings — nothing to complain about (except the continuing drought, but never mind that). Then on Thursday we got a “marine push.”  That’s a term used by meteorologists in this part of the world to describe a phenomenon where the overall flow of air shifts from offshore to onshore as something called a “thermal trough” exits the area. Warm (or hot) air from the interior of British Columbia is replaced by cool marine air from the Pacific Ocean. This time, unfortunately, the pressure gradient was such that we had strong winds all day and most of the night.

I admit it — I hate strong winds. I know some people find them bracing and energizing. People who engage in sports such as sailing, windsurfing and hang gliding live for windy days, and we definitely get our share here in Victoria, as those onshore winds are funneled up the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

But I, being a gardener, mutter and curse when the wind gets up into the strong category and persists, battering plants, ripping Clematis armandii from the eaves of the garage, and sucking up what little precious moisture remains in the soil.

The effects of wind are especially annoying now, at the dry and rattling end of Hell Month (see my July 18 post), when the garden already looks wretched.  Leaves are pulled from the maples, not the yellow and orange ones that will brighten the ground in October, but green leaves — a peculiar, sickly, dead-looking green. They give the garden a depressing air as they lie on the lawn and lodge among the equally tired-looking foliage in the perennial borders. The pond is scummed with algae and a generous sprinkling of those ugly leaves. There are twigs everywhere, and plants that were listing only slightly before have acquired a definite lean — an eastward one, of course.

This illustrates one of the central facts of gardening — crucial factors that determine success or failure are beyond the gardener’s control. Unlike indoor hobbyists and creative types (knitters, painters, woodworkers, potters), we gardeners work with the stuff of the earth and the natural world. Rain and wind, heat and frost, the depredations of insects and disease — all are elements about which we can do little or nothing. We water our gardens in dry weather, we stake tall plants, we race around with dusts and sprays intended to kill bugs or cure blights, we construct plastic tents, greenhouses or shade structures, but really, in the end we are at the mercy of nature.

Anyone who has gardened for more than a year or two knows this. And those of us who continue to garden in despite of this non-negotiable fact have come to embrace it. In our creative enterprise we are engaged with forces far greater than ourselves. We dance and wrestle with the Earth itself. Both our triumphs and our failures are the results of this partnership.

And all the complaining we do? We are entitled to it. It’s part of the package. Look at farmers, who are gardeners on a grand scale, with their livelihoods on the line. They complain all the time. But they are always looking ahead to Next Year.


Happy Birthday, HPL!

Victoria’s Solstice Cafe was the scene of an unholy revel last night (Friday, August 20) in honour of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s 12oth birthday. Under a monstrous tentacled effigy with glowing light bulb eyes, a horde of shambling forms howled “Ia, Cthulhu fhtagn!”  Impresario and mc Skawt Chonzz (a fun guy from Yuggoth) introduced a legion of poets, musicians and other performers who declaimed shocking poetry and chanted eldritch prose to the frenzied audience. The thin whining of an accursed flute (actually a tin whistle) was heard, but I missed the rattle of obscene crotala.

The birthday cake was intended to look like the Necronomicon. It was certainly hard to read in the uncertain light, and was anyway devoured in short order. Costumes featured lots of tentacles, but Obed Marsh was there too, and Shub-Niggurath (“the Black Goat of the woods with a thousand young”), and a light-up version of Herbert West (not really!)  There was a lively trivia contest and the evening wound up with a showing of David Prior’s short film AM1200, in which a man on the run ends up in a very strange place, doing unspeakable things.

Highlights for me were a reading of HPL’s “Nyarlathotep” by a sexy-voiced fellow, a plaintive song of a Cthulhu-worshipper performed by the multi-talented Mr. Chonzz with guitar accompaniment, and the film, which is truly creepy.

I don’t know what HPL would have made of this birthday party. He would definitely have approved of the fact that no alcohol was served; the proceedings were fueled by organic coffee and tea and the inherent enthusiasm of the participants. But HPL wasn’t really a party animal, and I found myself thinking a couple of times that it all might have been too much for him, and in the end he would have run shrieking into the night.

Life and Death of Gardens

Plant communities in nature go through something called “succession,” progressing through different groups of mutually cooperating plants until an optimal configuration is attained for the local conditions. This is called a “climax” plant community, be it a forest, a meadow, a prairie or a desert. Each wave of plants creates conditions favourable to the next wave, unwittingly sacrificing themselves for their successors.

It occurs to me that something analogous happens with gardens. I speak here of ornamental gardens, consisting mainly of perennials and shrubs. I have gardened in the same neighbourhood now for nearly 20 years, long enough to have observed the horticultural goings-on around me as well as participated in them on my own 50′ x 120′ patch.

A brand new garden always attracts attention. Sod is stripped, old, overgrown shrubs chopped down and their stumps dug up.  Sometimes new lawn is seeded or installed along with the new beds.  One day, there it is — perennials and shrubs turned out of their nursery pots and planted, looking young and eager. Each plant is sensibly distant from its neighbour and the soil is covered with a nice mulch of compost or cedar bark. Very nice. Whenever I see these new, freshly-made gardens, I feel a wave of envy and think I really should do something about my place, which has moved well beyond the young and hopeful stage.

Here’s what happens: some plants grow vigorously, others don’t. Some die. The gardener acquires new plants, which are fitted in among the originals. Eventually, perhaps, the gardener/homeowner goes on holiday, gets busy with other projects or persists in the deluded belief that planting is the hardest part and all that’s needed after that is to water occasionally and enjoy the show.

A few years down the road, many of those shiny new gardens don’t look so good.  Shrubs have ballooned, squeezing out the perennials between them. Self-seeders have colonized beyond the neat circles originally allotted to them on the gardener’s plan, overwhelming whatever more refined plants were nearby. Weeds have crept in, or, in the case of impossible-to-get-rid-of horrors like bindweed, made a triumphant comeback, first embracing the newcomers, eventually engulfing them.

In the worst case, a sort of “climax,” or more accurately, a final resting state is attained — the tough and hardy survive, the rest die out. By this time, the property may have changed hands and the new owners have had their way with the place, sodding over the failed perennial beds and whacking back the rambunctious shrubs. From garden to mere “yard” in a few short years.

The grand perennial borders of England are, as I understand it, regulalry reworked. Most of the plants are dug up, the undesirables discarded, the desirables divided if necessary and replanted in renewed soil. New varieties are added to replace outmoded ones or subjects that had failed to prosper. Instead of falling into decline, the garden is refreshed and begins anew. But only with copious inputs of time and labour.

Parts of my place are in need of this treatment. I should draw up a schedule for renewal, area by area, and carry it out over the next several years. A Five Year Plan: rip out the excess Lychnis coronaria and Campanula persicifolia. Divide those irises. Dig up the sponge-like layer of maple tree feeding roots and cart in fresh soil and compost. Select new lilies and hostas, hardy geraniums and variegated brunneras. Page through books of plant descriptions, make lists, get excited about garden-making again.

Maybe next winter. Maybe not. Right now, we’re still in Hell Month.  We hit a high of 33 C yesterday (90 F). Last week’s rain (a total of 7.5 mm. or about 1/4 inch) is a distant memory. The garden is supposed to look horrible just now, but it’s still a garden, not a “yard.”

Summer Rain

Summer rain… Those words are magical for me, because I live and garden in a region where it’s a rare phenomenon. (To be truthful, we on the south coast of Vancouver Island have very little to complain about, climate-wise. But we complain nevertheless).

This summer has been relatively cool, but very dry. We had only one millimeter of rain in July, and the parts of our landscape without artificial watering have taken on shades ranging from brown to golden to bone-white and dead-looking.

My lawns (actually remnant patches of mixed grass and subtle weeds among perennial beds and vegetable patch) retain a bit of green, but have been gradually browning over the past few weeks, like their gardener’s increasingly suntanned skin.

The main gardening activity these days is watering — with sprinklers on designated “watering days” — Wednesdays and Saturdays on my side of the street — and with the trusty watering can almost every day. I have a lot of plants in pots — tomatoes, dahlias, delphiniums, Stargazer lilies (just coming into bloom) and a dozen Meconopsis (blue poppies). I grow all these things in pots because the open ground is too full of wretched tree roots — but that’s another story. The soil in their pots is all these plants have to draw on, so regular watering is vital.

After several weeks, watering becomes a burdensome chore. The gardener grumbles about being a slave to the hose and the watering can. Notes of complaint appear in the daily weather record: Very dry. Still dry. Extremely dry. NO RAIN. People who exclaim about the “beautiful sunny weather” are apt to get a dissenting lecture or at least a non-committal grunt.

But today it’s raining, for the first time in more than a month. The air is soft, moist and full of fragrances. A mist rises from the pavements. The rain barrels are filling up. There are three and a half millimeters in the rain gauge so far and the radar image on Environment Canada’s website indicates more to come.  We might even get a whole five millimeters before it ends and a predicted warming and drying trend takes over.

Five millimeters is the boundary between what I call “psychological rain” and Real Rain. Psychological rain brings a slight relief from the prevailing dryness, but is not a remedy for it. Beyond five millimeters, there is wetting of the soil below the surface. The gardener gets a reprieve from watering for a day or two, because the best thing about rain is that it waters the whole garden, all at once (except the parts overhung by wretched maples — but that’s another complaint).

Not everyone is rejoicing. Golfers and planners of picnics and outdoor weddings are no doubt gnashing their teeth. But I refuse to feel guilty. I didn’t make this summer rain, but I’m glad it’s here.

An Interview with Herbert West

The following interview with Dr. Herbert West might have taken place in the spring of 1923.

Q: Dr. West, what brought you into the medical profession?

A: Death. My mother and twin brother died when I was a child. Since then death has been my adversary.

Q: How do you oppose death?

A: With science. It’s the only way. What else would you suggest, Miss___?

Q: Some would say that prayer —

A: [Laughter] Prayer! Surely you don’t envision me as a man of the cloth? [More laughter].

Q: No, not at all, Dr. West. Tell me, please, where were you educated?

A: Here in Arkham, at Miskatonic University. I received both my undergraduate and medical degrees here.

Q: So you are acquainted with the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Allan Halsey?

A; I am, unfortunately.

Q: Unfortunately? I understand that Dr. Halsey is well thought of in medical circles.

A: He can be charming. All deans should be charming, but it takes more than charm to be a competent physician.

Q: What qualities do you think are essential in a physician?

A: Fearlessness. Willingness to risk all for science. Perhaps a certain ruthlessness.

Q: Ruthlessness — did you learn that in medical school?

A: [Smiles] Perhaps I did not need to learn it. But I will remind you that I was a surgeon in the recent war.

Q: Yes, will you tell me a little about your war experiences?

A: I could tell you a great deal. More than you would ever wish to know. I will say only that for me, the War was a great laboratory.

Q: So it’s true that you have done experiments on humans?

A: Many times.

Q: Can you tell me — ?

A: I can, but I won’t. Patient confidentiality, you understand. [Smiles]

Q: Some people have called your achievements miraculous. What do you think of that?

A: Nothing is “miraculous.” It only seems so to the ignorant.

Q: And there are others who call your approach unethical.

A: I put “unethical” in the same category as “miraculous.”

Q: Dr. West, do you think that it is possible to achieve immortality? Of the body, I mean.

A: Bodily immortality is the only sort I acknowledge. Achievable? Yes, by all means.

Q: You sound so certain, almost as though you have already done it.

A: Miss ___, I think this interview is now finished. But I will say one more thing — Miskatonic University is not a milieu that favours the unorthodox. Have I answered your question?

Q: Not altogether.

A: Quite.

Q: Thank you for your time, Dr. West.

Read more about Herbert West in my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, available at: