Month: August 2012

A Prisoner of the Garden

There are times when I envy people without gardens. They never have to feel guilty because they’re behind with the weeding, or get anxious on hot summer days because the garden needs water. They can go on impromptu trips without elaborate arrangements to keep plants alive in their absence. They can spend all day in front of their computers, not once thinking about plants. How liberating that would be!

Face it — we gardeners are prisoners of our gardens. It’s almost 8 p.m. and there is a near-gale blowing, thrashing plants around and ripping leaves off the maple trees. The garden is not an inviting place right now, and I would rather be inside, but there are 82 pots (OK, maybe not quite that many) that need watering, not to mention 11 blue poppy plants that wilt in a pathetic, guilt-inducing way if their water needs aren’t met. It’s a good thing plants can’t vocalize.

It’s especially bad at this time of year — the dry and rattling end of summer. Sometimes I tell myself that it’s natural for everything to turn brown in late August, and so it is for the natural landscape. But gardens are by nature unnatural, collections of plants from all over the world whose needs are quite different. If I let my Himalayan blue poppies wilt and brown now, I may as well kiss them goodbye.

Getting back to the topic, it’s impossible to be a gardener only when you feel like it. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition, sort of like parenthood. Once you’re really involved in it, to quit is to invite disaster, shame and guilt. But if you weather the bad patches when it all seems like too much, there are rewards.

I just spent a couple of hours yanking out masses of periwinkle and digging out a couple of clumps of lemon balm. They were taking up space that could (and will) be occupied by more interesting plants — Lamium “Pink Pewter,” plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) and a yellow Liriope muscari called “Ingot.” I’m hoping these plants will mingle happily, with the periwinkle as a charming variation in texture and colour, not the dominant thug it was before. A note here:  in civilized beds, avoid regular Vinca minor altogether and opt for one of the variegated types; they are far less vigorous and not apt to get out of control. As I’ve so often done, I chose the quick, cheap and regrettable solution to lots of bare ground when I began gardening here, and now I have no bare ground at all and too much that’s occupied by thugs.

Another Saturday almost over, and I haven’t left the garden. Wandering through it earlier I saw so many things that need to be done that I will surely be spending a lot of my spare time here for many weekends to come. I just might make a few trips to the closest plant nursery, but not, I suspect, to the mall.


The Tastes of Deer

This year I’ve had an opportunity to find out just what deer like to eat. Like people at a buffet, they don’t always want the same things every time they visit the garden. Over the past six months, I’ve noticed some patterns.

In early spring, tulips are a big winner — buds, flowers, stems and leaves. One of my plantings was eaten down to stubs, so I don’t know if they will appear next spring. Fortunately, these weren’t tulips I really cared about; species tulips, incidentally, such as T. tarda and T. batalinii, were either overlooked or aren’t as tasty. Bergenia bloom stalks were all eaten. New leaves and flowers of epimediums were sampled. Even Centranthus was nipped, as was tender new growth on roses and spireas.

Later in spring and in early summer, I got the impression that deer were getting more selective and that most of my largely drought-tolerant perennials weren’t to their taste, but the few pea plants that I bothered to start in my ex-vegetable patch certainly were. If I try growing peas or beans again, they will have to be netted. Alstroemerias were popular during this period, and peach-leaf bellflower, which was deadheaded quite neatly by visiting deer.

At the end of June, almost all the buds on lily “Golden Splendor” were eaten, leaving only two. I quickly deployed an old lace curtain to protect them, so actually had the wonderful perfume of this lily for a while in July. The thing is that deer pretty much ignored lilies until they had swelling buds, which must be a delicacy. About this time I had to forget about daylily blooms and hydrangeas, as all the buds on those were eaten.

Not this year!

A deer with a taste for tomatoes must have cruised by early in July. One plant was reduced to a stump. The rest got the lace curtain treatment. It was such a crummy spring for tomatoes that I was determined to salvage what I could. Right now I actually have quite a few tomatoes the size of tennis balls, but as yet totally green.

Things were quiet until we got some genuine summer weather in August, when fresh vegetation grew scarce, and plants that were ignored until then suddenly became delectable. That’s what happened to my hostas. There was a bit of nibbling in May, but nothing major. Last week, however, the big green and white variegated hosta that lives in a pot near my pond was quite thoroughly eaten.

It should look like this

…but this is all that’s left.

Despite the above, I’m not of the Something Must Be Done About Those Deer school of thought. Certainly not the crude and ugly option of a “cull,” for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here. But gardeners do have a few options. Don’t grow plants that are real deer magnets, or if you do, be prepared to see damage. Learn what deer like at different times of the year and be ready for them. I plan to acquire some 1/2″ netting to drape over especially susceptible/desirable plants such as lilies and hostas. The lace curtains worked quite well as deer deterrents, but they do look rather peculiar. Netting would be more discreet but just as effective, I suspect. Deer that have lived since birth in urban environments aren’t deterred by human smells, but getting a mouthful of netting when you’re expecting tender greens will likely put them off.

Even delphiniums were sampled in this last round of damage, probably because the plants had started to grow fresh foliage and I had cut down the old ratty stalks, thus allowing access to the new leaves. It’s probably best to leave those old stalks in place, even though they are an eyesore.

  As yet, deer have shown no interest in the blue poppies, which makes it easier to maintain a philosophical attitude.

August Laziness

It’s August. The garden and gardener are tired. Plants aren’t growing or blooming much, and I spend most of my garden time cutting down things that are past their best and watering. We finally have real summer weather here on the west coast. It’s warm (almost hot) and definitely dry.

I have to admit that I’m looking forward to fall, my favourite season. Plants and plans that haven’t turned out well can be left behind and the rare and subtle fall bloomers enjoyed — the colchicums, autumn crocuses and hardy cyclamen.  I’ve already spotted one or two cyclamen flowers near my pond. After the first of the rains there will be warm days and cool evenings, with leaves starting to change colour, mushrooms popping up like surprises and that smell of mouldy sweetness that is the essence of the turning year.

But today the sky is clear to the horizon, a hard blue that promises heat. Apples hang on the trees, ripening. Tomatoes are finally moving beyond golf ball size; there might even be a few red ones eventually. The seeds of lamb’s ears and campion are maturing in their seed pods, which will soon start to rattle, a sure sign that the gardener has neglected to deadhead them in time.  (Not me — no campion in this picture, but I’ll have to keep an eye on those eryngiums!)

The Perseid meteor shower is in full swing. Last night was perfect for meteor-spotting, with the sky as black as it ever gets in suburbia. I went out to the garden at 2 a.m. and actually saw two meteors before I was spooked by rustling in the shrubbery.

That’s it for now; back to the virtual hammock.

The Comma Bucket

Editing my writing over the years, I’ve had a mental image of a big bucket full of commas that I’ve deleted from the novels in my Herbert West Trilogy. Running along the rows of text, I’ve plucked out commas right and left and tossed them into the bucket.

I admit that my usage of commas is largely determined by the way a sentence sounds in my mind as I’m composing it — rather like creating music without bothering to learn musical notation. In fact, I see prose as a kind of word-music, and apply commas in spots where one might take a breath while reading aloud.

I just did some superficial (is there any other kind?) web searching on the topic of comma usage and found a list called “10 Completely Wrong Ways to Use” this punctuation mark. Number 4 is my personal bugbear, as it turns out — inserting a comma after the first component of a compound predicate.  “She hated going to the dentist, and cried the whole way there.” Yes! This is exactly the kind of thing I do, not because I want to break a rule of usage (chortling wickedly as I insert the comma), but because to me the comma here represents a tiny pause in which the reader may savour the fact that “she” hated going to the dentist, before going on to the consequence of that hatred, her tears. If I want to do this and remain on the right side of the rules, I must turn the sentence into a compound one by repeating the subject “she” in the part after the conjunction, like this: “She hated going to the dentist, and she cried the whole way there.”

Well. I am a cataloguer by profession and therefore used to complex rules involving tiny details of wording and punctuation, but even to me this seems quite byzantine. (You don’t know what a cataloguer is?  A kind of librarian.  “Cataloger” is another way to spell it. Look it up).

The point is that both the correct and incorrect sentences I quoted look OK to me. I’m almost certain that if I were reading an interesting book, eager to find out who did it, or whether they get back together in the end, or if she escapes, I wouldn’t notice such an error.

This brings up a blog post by a fellow writer (also Canadian) that mentions “Canadian punctuation.” It seems that if one is preparing a book for the American market, one must punctuate American style. Do Canadians use more commas? If I’m an example, I suppose the answer is “Yes.” But again — does it matter? In fiction at least, if your prose is such that readers actually notice the way you use commas, the commas are probably the least of your problems.

This calls to mind yet another fellow writer’s blog post, recommending that writing may be improved by deleting instances of the word “that.” For example: “Alma thought Herbert had been dead for fifteen years,” instead of “Alma thought that Herbert had been dead for fifteen years.” She’s right; the “that”  doesn’t really add anything and the sentence is smoother without it. The problem is that once you focus on a word or punctuation mark, it’s all you can see as you read on. Sentences become meaningless because your brain can’t focus on anything else. It’s like when you notice a clock ticking or a fly buzzing; suddenly that sound seems intolerable and overwhelming. When that word or that comma is all you can see, you need to disengage and reset your brain. Take a walk, do some pushups, chase the cat around or have a drink — whatever it takes — before getting back to the text.

Words arranged in order have meaning, sharpened by the squiggles and dots that are punctuation marks. A deleted sentence falls back into its elements of words and letters; the commas, periods and dashes are tossed carelessly into the virtual bucket sitting by the writer’s feet.

For the last word on usage, you may wish to consult William Strunk’s 1918 classic The Elements of Style.