Month: May 2012

A Writerly Miscellany

The title of this post should be a tip-off that I’m hard up for a topic this week. One reason for this is because I’ve been spending a lot of time lately formatting another of my novels for upload to Smashwords. Volume Two of Islands of the Gulf will be available by the end of this week.

I’ve also been dipping into Merchants of Culture (updated second edition) by John B. Thompson, an analysis of the publishing business in the 21st century. I admit that I skipped right to the final two chapters, in which Mr. Thompson offers his own opinions on a number of issues. Most interesting to me is his statement that many writers write for other writers; that is the group whose opinion matters most to them. To quote: “The community of writers is a world apart; it intersects with the publishing world but that intersection is fraught with tension that stems from the fact that the interests of writers don’t always coincide with the interests of agents and editors.” To publishers, the primary measure of an author’s worth is his or her sales figures, which must be ever-growing in order to sustain the author-publisher relationship. Authors are quoted as saying that they feel trapped by their sales numbers. On the plus side, Thompson says that books, whether print or electronic, will always be with us, because a desire for story seems to be inherent in the human race. He speculates that there will be more small publishers as the major ones break under the strain of trying to sustain unsustainable growth.

Finally, I’ve been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for maybe the twentieth time. Every year or two I get the urge to take that long journey with Frodo and the others once again. It’s one of my best-loved books, but that has not stopped me from noticing a number of things that I’m sure have been pointed out by critical readers:

1. There are very few “grey” characters in this story. The evil guys are blackly evil and most of the good guys stay pure without a great deal of effort.

2. There is absolutely no sex in this story (which is absolutely OK with me), and very few female characters, one of whom (Shelob the spider) is among the most horrible.

3. The only explanation for the standard of living in the two elf-countries (Rivendell and Lorien) is the magic of the rings (which is OK, especially as that magic passes away after the One Ring is destroyed).

4. No one gives the wretched Gollum any credit for the destruction of the Ring, or talks about the fact that Frodo fails on the very brink of Doom, although he does admit it to Sam immediately after.

And finally…

5. The Eagles. In the battle before the gates of Mordor, Gandalf calls upon the Eagles to look for Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom. So the big question is: why doesn’t he think of asking an eagle to carry Frodo and the Ring to Mt. Doom right at the start, thus saving a lot of time and a torturous, risky journey? Especially since Gandalf himself is twice rescued by one of the big birds — from the tower of Orthanc when he is made prisoner by Saruman, and from the peak of Zirak-Zigil after his struggle with the Balrog. The first of these rescues takes place before the Council of Elrond. Such a choice would, of course, short circuit the whole story, and I explain it to myself in terms of sacrifice and suffering being necessary to bring about the great transformation, but a fussy critic inside of me feels that Tolkien should have dealt with this angle in some way. For example, someone should make the suggestion during the Council of Elrond so that it could be refuted for a reason that makes sense within the parameters of Tolkien’s world.

But despite these niggles, I will very likely pick up this book once again in a couple of years. Which goes to confirm my long-held opinion that there is no objective, rational standard by which writing is judged.

Onward! I will publish the second volume of my trilogy in four volumes a few days from now!

The Garden Right Now

It has just started to rain a little too hard for working in the garden, so I decided to write this post instead. I’m certainly not complaining about the rain, though. In this part of the world rain pretty much fizzles out by June and doesn’t reappear until September, or at least (if we’re lucky) late August. As a gardener, I envy those who garden in places with summer rain. “Summer rain” — those two words have a magical quality for me. So rain in late May is something to rejoice about, especially in this rooty little patch. It’s predicted to continue tonight and all day tomorrow.

I just planted a Lobelia cardinalis “Queen Victoria” — very suitable, since this is the Victoria Day weekend — in the tiny bog that adjoins my pond. A few weeks ago, I dug out most of a huge plant of sedge (Carex something or other) that used to be variegated but lost most of its variegation in the course of becoming enormous. Removing it cleared out an entire square foot of space in soil that is perpetually moist, an exceedingly rare thing around here. Yesterday evening I purchased “Queen Victoria” as an impulse buy at the grocery store. So much for careful planning and “garden design.” Even at 4 inches high, her dark red foliage looks great next to the bright green leaves of a marsh marigold and an astilbe. I hope she grows and prospers, eventually producing scarlet flowers.

Another new acquisition waiting to be planted is Gaura lindheimeri “Cherry Brandy,” which I bought as a replacement for a couple of pink gauras that inexplicably died in the winter of 2010-2011. Those were a variety called “Siskiyou Pink.” “Cherry Brandy” is supposed to be compact and suitable for the front of a border. I had a spot picked out for it months ago. A plant of Lychnis coronaria would have to be removed to accommodate the newcomer, but that was OK because I have lots of those, and (in late winter mode) it looked pretty scruffy. Well, now it has new foliage and is getting ready to bloom, which makes it nearly impossible for me to dig it up and put it in the compost. So now I’m considering a spot that will involve removal of a young plant of Eryngium giganteum (of which I have way too many), a chunk of some carpet-like sedum, and a plant of the common sweet violet, which is a near-weed and right now getting that scruffy past-its-best look which almost invites planticide.

Sadly, I have not much good to report on the blue poppy front. My original plant of Meconopsis “Lingholm” is opening a single small bud, which may be it for this year. I’m pinning my hopes on eleven young plants, seedlings of “Lingholm” that I planted in a new bed on the north side of a big lily-flowered magnolia. They seem to be settling in quite well, despite recent strong west winds that wrenched off a few leaves. I hope they will bloom next year. I have pretty much given up on growing Meconopsis in pots, after losing just about all of the dozen or so plants I potted up a few years ago. The crowns succumb to rot, and that’s that.

Finally, I can’t say that the ex-vegetable patch is making a successful transition to anything but a weed patch. However, the weeds are of a better quality than they might be — self-sown California poppies, snapdragons and Verbena bonariensis. Also an arugula plant in full bloom. I think arugulas could be grown by discerning gardeners as ornamentals, because of their elegant shapes and the unique beauty of their white flowers.

Arugula in bloom; borage and kale in the background

According to the weather radar on Environment Canada’s website (one of the best things about the internet, in my opinion), the rain is about to let up for a while. Time to plant that gaura!

Gardeners and the Latin Thing

So what about botanical Latin? It’s something even a semi-serious gardener will encounter eventually, if he or she wants to find out more about a plant or to order one from a supplier that organizes their product descriptions that way.

It also has enormous snob value. What better way to show that you are a Real Gardener than by saying (or writing) Hemerocallis instead of daylily, or Lavandula instead of lavender? I think most of us go through a phase like that, but eventually we realize that we sound silly and revert to common names for everyday purposes. (There is also the issue of pronunciation, which probably inhibits many would-be snobs).

There are times when you really do need to use that Latin name, though. You don’t want to end up with Vinca major, a truly rambunctious plant, when you want the more refined Vinca minor. And there are some garden perennials that are better known by their Latin genus names than common ones: Brunnera, for example. No one calls it “Siberian bugloss,” even though that is its common name.

I admit that in conversation I usually stick to the genus name, unless I happen to be discussing a group of related plants with which I’m familiar — euphorbias, for example, of which I have at least half a dozen species. These are a good example of why it matters to know the different types and their Latin names. There is a huge difference between Euphorbia characias, which can grow to be the size of a washing machine, and E. myrsinites, a sprawling thing about the size of a bath mat. Yet there is a clear family resemblance between them.

Euphorbia dulcis “Chameleon”

That’s the really interesting thing about botanical Latin. It’s not just a set of tongue-twisting names for plants assigned at random. It’s a classification, intended to show that certain plants are related to one another. As the gardener learns the names — not only the genus and species but the broader names of families — and observes the characteristics of the plants he or she grows, the relationships become evident. Think of the similarities among parsley, fennel and lovage — finely-cut leaves and umbel-shaped flower heads. They are all members of the Apiaceae. Or the quadrangular stems and paired leaves of mints and lamiums (family Lamiaceae). The Rosaceae are an enormous family that includes roses, of course, but also quinces, apples and blackberries. When you truly see the similarities between apples and rose hips, and the five-petalled, flat flowers of this group, it’s a distinct revelation. In these days when everyone looks up information on the internet, these relationships may be less obvious, so I recommend paging through a book on garden perennials or native plants of your region that is organized by botanical families. Study the pictures, or even better, actual plants, and you will experience an “aha” moment that elevates you above the dirt and weed aspect of gardening.

Another thing about botanical Latin — it’s great exercise for your brain! Consider this list of genus names: Cerastium, Ceratostigma, Epimedium, Erysimum, Eryngium, Liatris, Linaria, Liriope, Lysimachia, Lythrum. I have most of these plants in my garden, but I regularly have trouble remembering which name goes with which plant. But I am strict with my brain, and insist that it dredge up the correct term, without having to resort to looking it up. More often than not, the right name does emerge out of the jumble, which reassures me that I am not yet Losing It.

Acquiring Plants

My route to work often takes me along a walking trail with wildflowers growing nearby. For the past two or three years, I have observed a lone clump of shooting-stars (Dodecathon) growing in a rather shady spot, surrounded by fawn lilies (Erythronium). I first recognized it by its clump of basal leaves, which looked different from other plants in the area. Last year it managed a few blooms, and this spring there were many — a small cloud of purple near the trail. Too near, it turned out, because a few days ago it was gone, leaving only a shallow hole scraped in the soil by a plant thief. i don’t know how fussy shooting-stars are about their growing conditions, but transplanting wildflowers from their preferred habitats is not always successful. The poor thing may very well be dead by now.

This is not a good way to acquire a plant for one’s garden, but there are many legitimate ways. They illustrate beautifully the maxim “Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.”

You can make your own plants, growing them from seeds or cuttings. Sources of these are varied, ranging from purchase to collecting them from other gardens (with permission) or from natural areas. This option is somewhat suspect, but may be justified when the plant in question is abundant and the amount of seed collected is small. Cuttings are a good way to increase numbers of a plant you want more of, or as insurance. For example, I drastically pruned a curry plant earlier this spring, hoping that it would send out new growth from the old wood. So far it hasn’t really done that, but I do have three cuttings that appear to have rooted, and which will make three new plants. Grey-leaved, drought-tolerant plants such as lavenders, helichrysums and senecios often become woody and awkward in old age. Cuttings are a good way to replace them.

Gardeners often give surplus plants to others, especially to those new to gardening. If you have a lot of empty space and want to fill it quickly and cheaply, a generous neighbour may be a blessing. But consider that there is a reason for that surplus, and a few years down the road the blessing may become a curse.

Seeds and plants may, of course, be purchased from a variety of retail outlets. Mail order (or more likely internet order) is an excellent source for items such as rare or special bulbs or seeds, since those are fairly easy to ship. I am of mixed minds about obtaining non-dormant plants from sources that involve shipping by postal mail or even courier services. For one thing, the shipping charges are hefty, adding considerably to the cost of an order. For another, the supplier quite understandably takes measures to reduce the weight and volume of the items being shipped. This means removing most of the soil the plants grew in and wrapping them in plastic. Some endure this treatment, and grow quite well once planted; others don’t, and languish or die forthwith. If you are intending to plant a specimen obtained in this way into a spot with any challenges at all (vigorous surrounding plants, a hot or dry spot), it’s a good idea to pot it up after unpacking it, and coddle it until it appears strong enough to withstand the rigors of its permanent spot. Another thing to keep in mind is that once delivered, the plants must be unpacked and planted immediately, in temporary or permanent spots. It’s not a good idea to dump the box in a corner until the weekend.

My preferred way to buy plants is in person from a nursery. You can select them yourself and transport them to your garden in their pots. Happily for gardeners in my area, there are numbers of general and specialty nurseries close by, where one can obtain a good variety of plants, including new varieties. Another option is the plant sales of botanical gardens or horticultural societies; rarities may be available from these sources at reasonable prices, along with advice from expert growers. They are generally once-a-year events, and quite popular, so planning and early arrivals are recommended.

The only real hazard of plant-shopping in person is the impulse buy which results in a frantic gardener racing around with spade in one hand, new plant in the other, searching for a spot in which to accommodate the newcomer. My advice — don’t shoehorn the poor thing into a too-small space. Sacrifice a few tough plants of which you have lots and prepare a good site. For example: toadflax, campion, lamb’s ears, peach-leaf bellflower, yellow corydalis, etc., etc. You know the ones.