Month: June 2013

The Garden in June: Goodbye Zoey

June 19, 2013

The two main bloom spectacles in June are from roses and delphiniums. This rose is a type whose name is unknown to me but it’s obviously a tough one, since it grows between two Norway maples, slings itself into their branches and blooms with abandon. The flowers are very full, white with a pinkish tint, and fragrant.

Another rose that blooms hard in June is Rosa glauca (formerly Rosa rubrifolia), the red-leaf rose. The leaves aren’t really red, but a sort of blue-green with reddish overtones, quite unusual. The flowers are tiny and not much to look at individually, but a pleasing sight in quantity.

June 9, 2013

Delphiniums are in full bloom now, but I like them best when they are mostly still in bud, with just a few flowers open — great anticipation!

June 19, 2013

Mulleins have this effect too — their growth from rosettes of great big fuzzy leaves up to the point they burst into bloom is a prolonged event. Once in full bloom they are abuzz with bees.

Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

Mullein (Verbascum olympicum)

A shrub I’ve had for years is finally living up to it’s name — Brachyglottis (or maybe Senecio) “Sunshine.”

June 19, 2013

And we are having sunshine and the first really hot weather of the season (28 C), but there is sadness too because of the death today of our cat Zoey, who had lived here since 2000. She was a sweetie. The garden won’t be the same without her.




No Music, No Writing

Can it be a coincidence that I have written hardly anything new since I started spending more time on the computer (blogging, checking blog and book stats, reading discussions about writing, etc.) and less time alone with music?  I listen to talk radio in the mornings and have taken to doing so in the evenings as well, instead of turning to music as I did in my years of intense writing.

Thinking back with nostalgia to those years, I recall  that I would hustle down to my subterranean writing room around 7:30 p.m. with a pot of tea and my favourite cat, and not emerge until around 10 p.m. (lugging empty teapot and the cat, who usually wasn’t ready to pack it in). Those 2.5 hours would be spent hunched over my current manuscript (either a pile of paper densely covered with longhand scribble or a Word document on my not-connected-to-the-internet computer — essentially a glorified typewriter). I had on hand a couple of dozen CDs and would pop one in and swap it for others as the evening progressed:  Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Schubert’s Winterreise, Britten, Shostakovich or maybe Loreena McKennitt. Or Thomas Tallis. Or Marjan Mozetich. Old friends all, now rarely heard.

So what happened?

What happened was that in 2010 I decided to self-publish The Friendship of Mortals through Smashwords. I bought a new computer and got an internet connection. I published the book and started this blog. By that time I had finished writing my Herbert West trilogy and another novel (inspired by and featuring Schubert’s Winterreise, strangely enough). Instead of rushing to my writing room to create, I rushed to the computer to check stats, monitor progress and tinker with existing  works. Suddenly it seemed important to keep up with world events, revolutions, massacres and political scandals, not to mention other writers’ opinions on SP vs. TP, “-ly” words, and other weighty matters. CDs languished unplayed and ideas remained unwritten.

I’ve published the other books in my trilogy since then, as well as written 158 blog posts, and read a lot of other writers’ works, both published and in progress. I’ve written comments and “reviews,” and awarded stars to books I read recently or long ago. I did some of these things because they were fun and others with the idea that I was creating an “internet presence” or “profile” that would help to bring my books to public attention. I can’t apply the label “marketing” to any of this, and I’m not certain that it was the best use of my time. My efforts at new writing remain spotty and I still hear music by accident, rather than listen to it consciously.

Music stirs up the creative waters, whereas talk clutters up the brain, making a buzz that drowns out original thoughts and blocks perception of the delicate connections between unlikely ideas that are the crucible of inspiration. Is it better to spend time on dubious self-promotion efforts rather than trace those connections and turn ideas into words? Even if those words remain unread due to lack of “marketing?”

Critique Group or Beta Readers?

With all the self-publishing going on right now, and the consequent tutting about “floods of unedited crap” being inflicted on potential readers, we writers are obligated to expose our creations to eyes and minds other than our own before turning them loose.

For years, I have relied on a critique group of three or four other writers. We meet monthly to comment on 10,000 word sections from our novels. It works fairly well, but not perfectly.

The main problem is the gap of several weeks between meetings. Granted, we read each piece quite closely, on the alert for details that few casual readers would notice (unless their effect is such that the reader finds the book confusing, which is why we agonize over them), but in the weeks between reading sessions, continuity is broken. In meetings, we critiquers often take each other to task for inexplicable and confusing references to incidents and characters that appeared earlier in the novel. Invariably, we suggest recaps or explanatory hints that would not be needed for someone who sits down and reads the whole book over the period of a month, instead of 10,000 words (about 30 pages). Discussing these situations can be a waste of time and (in my case) a source of annoyance, as I have a tendency to argue. (Yes, but it wouldn’t be confusing if you were a normal reader… blah, blah, blah). Even without these diversions, working through a novel of 100,000 words takes many months.

Another problem with critique groups is that, inevitably, their membership changes. People leave. Other people join. The optimal size for such a group, in my opinion, is four people. That number produces a variety of opinions without burdening each member with too much reading every month. But incorporating a new member can be tricky. Suppose the rest of the group is 3/4 of the way through someone’s novel. The new member comes in without the context provided by having read the first 75%, which necessarily colours their comments. It’s too much to expect that they take the time to read the opus from the beginning, so aids such as detailed synopses and timelines may be necessary. Although helpful, these are no substitute for the atmosphere and nuances acquired by reading the entire work.

Critique groups are at their best when dealing with short stories or possibly discrete parts of longer works. A single scene, for example, may be presented for critique of specific details. Is the dialogue realistic? Does the scene convey a feeling of horror? Does this work better in present or past tense? That sort of thing. For novels, beta readers may be a better option.

Beta readers, for those unfamiliar with the term, are people who read an entire manuscript in “real time” and convey their impressions and suggestions to the writer. They should be people accustomed to reading, but not friends or family members of the writer. Members of writers’ societies, or for that matter, of critique groups, may be ideal beta readers. At least three readers would be optimal; any comments made by all three would definitely be worth following up on.

The main problem with beta readers is finding them. People are busy, busy, busy. Here young writers may be at an advantage. By middle age, everyone is locked into ironbound schedules. A manuscript swap — you read mine and I’ll read yours — can work, but if you want to swap with three different people, it’s an intense reading commitment. Or you do three swaps one after the other — which, like the critique group, can take months.

Good, Fast, Cheap.  Pick two. In writing, as in so many other things, this is the dismal truth.

Weeding Part 2: How To Weed

Weeding season is almost over, or should be. Actually, it’s never over, but I mean the main spring weeding effort, which, if done promptly, can save the gardener a lot of work and worry later on.

Spring is the ideal time to extract most annual weeds before they bloom, set seeds and multiply. It’s also a good time to deal with perennial weeds, while they are in the early stages of growth and easily seen.

In an earlier post, I noted that it’s helpful for gardeners to recognize plants at the seedling stage, so they can remove them if they are weeds or nurture them if they are desired plants. Keeping that in mind, here are some tools and techniques for removing the unwanted.

Tools range from small and surgical (a one-prong cultivator that used to have three prongs, the usual three-pronged version as well as a three-pronged hand-fork, a nice little hand-hoe with a very sharp blade, the ever-popular dandelion tool) to large and crude (hoes, mattocks and the like, which I hardly ever use in my crowded beds). The main thing is to decide whether you want to extract or merely cut. Cutting works for masses of small seedlings. The sharp-bladed hand-hoe is just the thing for slicing their roots just below the soil surface, but care is needed to avoid desirable plants, which can be decapitated along with the weeds. A different set of tools is needed to penetrate the soil as far as a weed’s roots go, in order to loosen it to the point that the weed can be extracted intact. The dandelion tool is an example of this, but the sad truth is that I never get the whole root. Removing at least some of it does in the dandelion for that season, however, and prevents blooming and seeding. Repeated hoicking, moreover, weakens the plant to the point where it eventually gives up. I have reduced the dandelion population in my lawn to almost nothing this way, even though dandelions bloom merrily in the yard next door.

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding Tool Arsenal

Weeding teaches one how to weed. After a few sessions, you recognize which weeds can be pulled up by yanking on their tops and which need to be dug out or pried up. The main thing is to do this work before the soil dries and hardens and taproots become immovable. That’s by the end of May in my garden, but a lot depends on soil type (clay is always difficult) and amount of rainfall.

Tardy gardeners need desperate measures for when things are getting out of control:  if weeds haven’t been pulled out before blooming, at least cut off the developing seed heads. Even if the seeds have ripened, you can carefully cut off the seed heads, depositing them into a bucket. Resign yourself to the fact that some seeds will be scattered during this procedure, resulting in seedlings next spring. And it goes without saying that you don’t put the seed heads into the compost heap, unless yours is a hot heap. (Mine isn’t).

Finally, know when to admit defeat and negotiate. Some weeds are invincible and you just have to learn to live with them (or move). Nearly every summer, I find myself pulling masses of small bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) out of the lawn — not to remove it permanently; there’s no hope of that — but as an act of cosmetic desperation, simply to get rid of as many of those screaming white flowers that stand out wonderfully against the by then brown lawn. There’s something slovenly about that scene, like dust-bunnies chasing each other around the kitchen floor. (But maybe that’s just one of my crotchets and other people don’t even notice bindweed. I can always hope).

Right now I’m thinking I had better come to grips with “deadheading” Euphorbia characias subsp. characias “Humpty Dumpty” (yes, that really is its name, both the repetitious Latin moniker and the cutesy variety name). It blooms hugely all spring. In June, the flower heads begin to take on a tawny look, and if you are near the plant on a sunny day, you hear crisp little pops. “What’s that?” you think. It’s the euphoria’s seed pods bursting and shooting seeds all over the place, resulting in a crop of little seedlings (blue-green 1/2-inch long leaves) that need to be pulled out before they grow into 4′ x 4′ Humpties. Really.

Euphorbia "Humpty Dumpty"

Euphorbia “Humpty Dumpty”

The Garden in May — Blue!

In 2001 I had a small bed of Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis betonicifolia), seven plants in two short rows, all blooming at once.  In a typical case of gardener’s hubris, I didn’t bother taking pictures, thinking there would always be next year. There wasn’t.

Now I have eleven plants, seedlings from a plant of Meconopsis “Lingholm.” They are in a curving single row on the north side of a large magnolia, and eight of them are in bloom. This time I took a lot of pictures, a whole gallery in fact.

What else has been happening? Ducks fighting in the pond, epic struggles with excessive vegetation, tomato plants looking hopeful in their pots, and a new clematis (“Pink Fantasy”).