Retirement

part of back garden on wet spring day

A Slow Spring

Calendar spring has arrived, but the real thing is still peeking around the curtain, trying to decide when to make its appearance. We’ve gone from cold to cool, but haven’t arrived at warm.

And that’s fine with me. No, really! I’ve always found spring to be an anxiety-producing season. So much to do and not enough time in which to do it, never mind savour and observe. Weeds to weed, plants to plant, seeds to seed. And grass to mow.

Last spring — my first as a job-free (i.e., retired) person — came on fast and hot. Right from the start, I felt I had missed the garden bus with no hope of catching up. The weirdness of  leaving my years-long work routines, combined with hot (30 C, 86 F) days in May threw me off balance. I found myself shelving ambitious plans for the garden and improvising.

This year is different. I’ve worked through most of my Things to Prune list and made good progress on the Plants to Move one. I’ve seeded half a dozen perennials (inside) and of course the tomatoes. Most of them are starting to sprout. Tomatoes aside, it’s been years since I bothered growing new plants from seed.

Finding literally hundreds of hellebore seedlings around one of my mature plants, I potted up a few dozen. Hellebores do quite well here, so my plan is to make them more of a feature in a couple of beds, replacing plants that are struggling. The parent plant is a rather dark, smoky purple; it will be interesting to see what colours its offspring produce.

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These cool, often cloudy days are perfect for doing strenuous stuff in the garden, such as digging up perennials and moving them to new, supposedly better spots. Preparing the new spots, of course, usually involves cutting and removing part of the network of tree roots that lurks just below the surface.

I also have a lot of compost to distribute — shovel into wheelbarrow, shovel out over the ground. (When I think about it, compost is an awful lot of work — rake up the leaves and stuff, pile it up, poke it and turn it, and finally shovel as above, probably returning much of the material — in a decomposed state, of course — pretty much to where it started from. Nature probably laughs at gardeners).

In between all these efforts, it’s good to wander around and see what the plants are up to. That, after all, is the reward.

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Euphorbia myrsinites

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Iris unguicularis

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Arum italicum

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Free Lunch!

Since December, this usually balmy part of the world has been experiencing spasms of cold weather — cold and windy, cold and frosty, even a bit snowy. Being at home during the day now, I’ve been observing bird activity on the premises. I’m not a “birder,” but I can’t help but notice the birds that hang around the place, and what they’re up to. Given the weather, I decided to provide some sustenance for the little dudes.

After a bit of internet research, I supplied the following: black oil sunflower seeds in a hanging tube-shaped feeder with little perches, a block of suet with embedded seeds of some sort, white millet seeds scattered on the ground and a hummingbird feeder with a correctly prepared sugar solution. (Before anyone objects to this as out of season, I’ll just point out that Anna’s hummingbirds are year-round residents here). The hummingbird feeder is close to a kitchen window.

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Anna’s hummingbird

 

Observations so far: even though black-oil sunflower seeds are recommended as suitable  for a large variety of birds, the only ones I’ve seen partaking of them here have been chestnut-backed chickadees, who show up now and then. I figure I have enough sunflower seeds for the next 20 years.

The suet is preferred by gangs of bushtits and a couple of Bewick’s wrens, as well as some sort of tiny, yellowish green bird I haven’t managed to identify. I’m especially fond of Bewick’s wrens, because of the pair that nested in a shoe on the back porch a couple of summers ago.

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Towhee and junco

 

Seeds on the ground, which may include spills from the hanging feeder, and suet crumbs, are popular with juncos (winter residents here) and what may be golden-crowned sparrows, as well as a solitary towhee. Strangely, the resident house sparrows don’t bother with any of this largesse. I have no idea where they get their food.

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Male hummingbird?

Hummingbirds have started visiting their feeder. I’ve noticed one hanging out in the apple tree and coming over to sip the sugar solution at intervals. I’ve also seen him chasing another bird away, which I gather is typical of hummingbirds. Later, what appears to be a different bird turned up — possibly a female?

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Female hummingbird?

All this is rewarding for everyone concerned, a win-win, but there is some responsibility involved on my part: replenishment of feed when needed, and cleaning of feeders to prevent fungi and other nasties. At night I haul the clothesline from which the seed tube and suet are suspended close to the house, to keep everything out of any rain or snow. Then there’s fretting about the temperature at which the sugar solution might freeze… Always something to figure out and “manage.”

 

 

 

One Way Mirror

We took down our Christmas lights today. No more blue glow from the porch this evening.

A day or two after Christmas, the world changes — completely. Christmas trees and decorations are still up, but seem less relevant with every passing minute. Shame on anyone who dares to play (or hum or whistle) a Christmas tune. The excitement that started building in November has reached a climax and dissipated. The deadline of Christmas Day is dead, and new ones appear on the horizon. Valentine’s Day. Birthdays. Spring break. School holidays. The wheel of the year must trace an entire revolution, through budding, blooming and fading, before those coloured lights of the winter solstice look right again. The only way to get there is forward, through the raw brightness of the new year.

For some reason this abrupt shift was especially acute this year. It may be because on New Year’s Day a strong northeast wind came up, bringing a week of cold, dry weather. OK, it wasn’t true Canadian cold, but cold enough for us West Coast types — minus 5 degrees C (23 F) at the nadir, which came last night after the wind finally dropped. But air hovering around the freezing point feels murderously cold when propelled by a 30 or 40 knot wind. That wind seemed to blow Christmas and its trappings right out of town, intensifying the effect of the annual post-holiday shift.

Another slightly disconcerting thing was a feeling that I should be going back to work, as though the nine months since I retired on March 31st were just an extended holiday, now over. I have to say I’m happy to reassure myself that it’s not so, emphasized by the fact that the first new items of clothing and footwear I’ve acquired since then are without question “loafing clothes.”

Cozy lounging sweater (with hood) and purple felt slippers.

Cozy lounging sweater (with hood) and purple felt slippers.

Remember those geraniums (pelargoniums) I resolved to pull through the first episode of cold weather several weeks ago? Well, I added extra insulating materials and covered everything with a tarp. When I unveiled them today they looked alive, but I’m wondering if they’re actually green zombies that will eventually show their true deadness by turning brown.

Pelargoniums tucked in against the cold.

Pelargoniums tucked in against the cold.

Turning to Mush

Before I retired, one of my fears was that my brain would turn to mush and my days would become an unstructured blur.

For the first few weeks, all was well. I bustled about, undertaking garden projects, getting rid of my working wardrobe (well, some of it) and relishing the prospect of infinite choice.

Then, last week, some sort of pollen allergy hit. I had episodes of these when I was younger, but not for the last decade. (One of the benefits of age, I thought). But last weekend, it was just like old times — runny, itchy nose, sneezing, stuffiness. No question of bustling or blogging, just sneezing, wheezing and blowing.

Enter antihistamines! One that promised 24 hour relief without drowsiness did the trick, although I’m not sure about the “no drowsiness” part. It’s unbelievable and indecent how much time I spend dozing and resting. Bedtime has been advanced an hour too. Old age is sometimes called “second childhood,” but I didn’t think I would regress so fast!

Logically, this is just a passing phase. Maybe my body is reacting to the change in routine. After all, five days of most weeks would start with “Get up, get washed, get dressed, get breakfast, get out the door by seven a.m.” Day after day, week after week, for more than 20 years. No wonder the poor old bod’s dazed and confused.

Between bouts of self-pity, mugs of tea and wads of tissues, I have been revisiting some of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, in a hefty edition annotated by Leslie S. Klinger. The footnotes, which elucidate historical and scientific details mentioned in the stories, are a distinct bonus, as are the many pictures. I have only two major problems with the book: 1) It’s huge! Definitely flunks the bath and beach tests, and is a bit of a job to read in bed (especially if it has to share lap space with a cat); 2) The absence of one of my favourite HPL stories, “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

Here’s hoping the mush will firm up soon! Gardens don’t wait for gardeners.

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A Gardener’s Field Trip: The Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve

One good thing about being retired is being able to go on weekend outings without feeling guilty about neglected “shoulds” that have to be packed into the two days per week away from work. Now that stuff can be kicked down the road.

So today I hit the road and drove up to the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, a site managed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. It’s closed to the public except for this one day, so this was a valuable opportunity to see and learn about an ecosystem that once existed in the place where I live and garden.

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Blue Camas

The weather was perfect — sunny but not too hot. The 84 acre site, a former farm, consists of an open slope with a few giant oaks that are several hundred years old, and a more heavily treed area of both large and small oaks. At the bottom of the hill is a wetland area. Due to the rather warm spring, many of the early wildflowers had finished blooming, but the camas were still putting on a show, along with some spring gold and patches of seablush here and there.

An ancient Garry Oak

An ancient Garry Oak

Bluebirds have returned to this site and were a big hit. Serious looking cameras and spotting scopes abounded among participants. I had never seen a bluebird and was astonished at the truly electric blue plumage of the male birds. (The females are a nice rusty brown). I wandered along a network of narrow, mowed paths, snapping pictures and soaking in the ambience. This is a very special place; there are spots from which no buildings or roads can be seen, even though it is located in farmland and is quite close to the spreading suburbs of the small city of Duncan.

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This tree was full of noisy swallows

This tree was full of noisy swallows

I attended two lectures, presented under an enormous oak, with tree swallows swooping and chortling overhead. Their vocalizations almost drowned out the first speaker at times — forest ecologist John Dick explaining the role of fire in maintaining these landscapes. Parts of the preserve are burned at regular intervals to clear out invasive species and control the growth of shrubs which would eventually turn the meadows into forest. Garry oak meadows were burned in this way by the native peoples who lived here before colonization, as a way of maintaining the productivity of the camas plants that were an important food resource.

Pools of camas under oaks

Pools of camas under oaks

 

Deer skull

Deer skull

 

The second lecture was by writer and gardener Maleea Acker. She described how she has turned her small city lot into a native plant garden, by rooting cuttings of shrubs and using sheet composting to suppress grass and create rich soil for wildflowers. Reasons for other gardeners to introduce native plants to their gardens or even to convert all the space at their disposal to something like its former self: climate change, which will make sustainable, drought- and heat-tolerant landscapes desirable; more importantly, the hope that patches of native plants in private and public gardens will create connections, weaving a network over the landscape.

Camas and Spring Gold

Camas and Spring Gold

Another type of connection is that between gardeners and the land they work with, and among gardeners themselves. The latter was certainly evident at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve.

 

 

Retirement: Week 1

April Fool’s Day. Is this a good day on which to begin something new, I wonder. Retirement, maybe? Quite possibly, since it’s viewed as a transition from Productive Person to Old Fool Fogey.

For the first month or so, I have no definite plan. The idea is to do whatever I feel like, with plenty of little rests between bursts of activity.

Day 1: the Spouse, the Dog and I went on a small ramble in East Sooke Park, one of the more scenic spots in a region that abounds in such spots. The Dog met a puppy that wanted to play and obliged politely, much to the puppy’s owner’s delight. Other highlights of the walk were a small beach of coarse sand and small pebbles, sightings of Erythroniums and Fairy Slipper Orchids in bloom, and the distinctive foliage of Rattlesnake Plantains (not in bloom). On the way back to the parking lot, the Dog was in her element, bouncing through a rather muddy field. A surprising amount of soil came home with us, leading to muttering about “spending my retirement cleaning up after that Dog.”

Erythronium in East Sooke Regional Park

Erythronium in East Sooke Regional Park

Day 2: in the garden, edging, mowing and raking the remains of the two small sections of lawn that are frequented by the Dog. I’m hoping the grass that remains is a specially tough variety that will persist. Otherwise, replacement with some sort of gravel and/or pavement will be necessary. Even in its ravaged state, it looks much better after the attention received.

Day 3: in the garden again, yanking out snowberry suckers from one of the perennial beds and wondering why I ever planted snowberry. Yes, it’s a native plant and drought-tolerant, but it sends roots and suckers all over the place. They come up in the middle of perennials such as asters, necessitating surgical probing and removal which is probably temporary. Note to self (and others): if ever creating a garden from scratch, avoid suckering plants. Snowberry isn’t the only one here with that sneaky and annoying tendency. There are also Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), common lilac and the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), also known locally as the Tree from Hell. It forms weird brain-like structures underground at considerable distance from the parent tree, from which grow clumps of suckers.

Gardening in progress! (Note the fork).

Gardening in progress! (Note the fork).

Day 4: grocery stores and banks. Tedious but necessary, and it’s a novelty to do this stuff on a Monday. Nice long nap in the afternoon.

Day 5: a cool showery day, perfect for distributing compost to various perennial beds. It’s verging on too late for this job, because plants have sprouted and leafed out to the point that one can’t just fling the compost around without worrying about crushing delicate new growth. So I deposit it unevenly and tell myself that as it’s absorbed into the soil, the benefits will trickle down, like wealth from rich to poor. (We’ll see about that).

Day 6: a morning walk with Spouse and Dog along the southward-facing bluffs by Dallas Road. Glorious day, cool enough that the sun feels good; not too windy. Dog wet and happy after romping in the waves; several walkers not happy about wet dog nose. Then back to the garden: potted up a couple of refugee plants, did some spontaneous weeding here and there, and removed a large foxglove plant that was impinging on a clump of asters and some feeble lilies. Foxgloves are another near-weed that does well here (and almost everywhere). This one was the standard magenta type, so no great asset. Away with it! Later: made some Root Beer Barbecue Sauce.

Day 7: another glorious summer-like day (will have to start watering soon, if this keeps up). Went downtown and acquired three books (A Song for Nettie Johnson by Gloria Sawai, The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, and — with reservations — The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt), and some tea (Murchie’s Raspberry and Ceylon Uva), courtesy of generous colleagues and coworkers. At home, stashed away items brought home from the office a week ago — photographs, pen-holders, three rocks (used to weigh down the pages of books being catalogued, or as paperweights) and scraps of paper with helpful or inspiring quotations.

Rocks & Quotes

The quotations: “Faith is the ability to live hopefully without answers.” (Mary Fisher, I’ll Not Go Quietly)

“You don’t want to sharpen the axe for your own execution,” and, “Uncommonness is a reason to prompt reflection and inquiry, not necessarily to exclude.” These two from cataloguer librarians, in posts to the Authorities and Cataloging (Autocat) email discussion list, which as a cataloguer I found to be an invaluable resource.

“Perhaps the greatest folly possible for a culture is to try to pass itself on by using principles of efficiency. When a culture is rich enough and inherently complex enough to afford redundancy of nurturers, but eliminates them as an extravagance or loses their cultural services through heedlessness of what is being lost, the consequence is self-inflicted cultural genocide.” (Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead).

And finally, “The world is full of possibilities. Things irretrievably lost may not be lost. Believe in yourself. Trust your intuition. Stick to what you know to be true. True stature comes from within. Turn grief into music.” (Linda Zuckerman, quoted in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, volume 54, number 1 (January 9, 1995).

Forget-me-nots and Gentian

Forget-me-nots and Gentian

Radical Ruminations

Poised on the brink of another spring — and retirement! — I’m considering the options for renovating my garden. As I’ve lamented in a number of posts, the back garden is dominated by two mature Norway maples and a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus). The entire space (about 30 x 50 feet) has been infiltrated with a solid mat of maple roots, which makes it difficult to grow any but the toughest plants, especially in soil that is mostly sand, and in a summer-dry climate.

 

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

 

The Tree of Heaven. The huge red maple on the right is on a neighbour's property.

The Tree of Heaven. The huge red maple on the right is on a neighbour’s property.

More than once, I have decided to have the trees removed — all three of them. That would open up the sky above the garden and get rid of the roots (eventually). I could grow plants well that barely perform now — peonies, roses, delphiniums, irises! The water lilies in the pond would actually bloom!

Then I think about the disruption. A vigorous climbing rose (white flowers with a pink tinge, very double, in May and June) has slung itself over the lowest limbs of one of the maples. It would have either to be cut down or provided with some other support. Men with size 12 feet would tromp all over the place and there would be all that wood to deal with.

Climbing rose in maple

Climbing rose in maple

Then there’s the expense. Tree removal is not cheap, and I am about to swap money for time.

So I come around to leaving the trees alone and working on the plantings that share space with them. Here, I have a few options:

  1. Remake the Beds. This means digging up the plants I value and stashing them somewhere while I dig out the surface roots and amend the soil with compost and other goodies. Then replant, adding new plants suitable for dry shade. Advantage: the plants will grow quite well for a while. Disadvantages: Back-breaking labour, and the effect would be temporary; in a few years the tree roots will re-grow.
  2. Adjust the Beds. Identify attractive (to me) plants that actually thrive under the present conditions. Get rid of all the sad sacks and weedy specimens and add more of these superstars — mainly hellebores and ferns with spring-blooming bulbs. Fussier things (delphiniums and lilies) could be grown in pots and parachuted in for blobs of colour in season.
  3. Keep the Status Quo. The trouble is, in gardens, there’s no such thing as status quo. Succession kicks in, some plants die, others prosper and in a few years it’s all rose campion, purple toadflax and feverfew jostling around the original hellebores. And yet, even a mess like that can look amazingly good in the slanting light of a summer evening, as long as the bed is defined by edging and trimming.

In the short term, i.e., the next year or two, I think I’ll go with a combination of options 1 and 2. The first thing will be to make the 18-inch tall wooden dog fence along the front of this area taller (by adding 3-foot pickets at 8 to 10-inch intervals) and installing a gate between the two sections of fence. That will make it possible to remove the goofy wire fence around the edge of the circular lawn. Aesthetics apart, that fence makes working in those beds way too hard.

Dog fences.

Dog fences.

The next step will be to identify the plants that do well here already, both “quality” and “weedy” types. Undesirables and struggling specimens will be removed and selected areas dug over and replanted. (Of course all these labours will be performed by me, but somehow I can’t quite bring myself to say “I will remove, dig, replant, etc.”)

I keep reminding myself I will have ten extra hours most days of the week in which to accomplish this stuff. One way or another, the place will look like this again. Or better.

The Back Garden, May 2010