paying attention

Being Aware

A red-leafed barberry bush in my front garden has grown larger than I expected it would (even though I took the cutting from a huge bush — such is the self-delusion of gardeners). I was planning to prune it next spring, cutting out one or two of the oldest branches at the base. This, I reasoned, would reduce the overall bulk of the plant. Last fall, after the barberry’s leaves had fallen, I took a look at the bush in order to decide which branch or branches to remove. I never got to that point, because I discovered a bushtit’s nest in the middle of the bush. It’s hard to see in the picture, but it’s that brownish clump of stuff among the thorny branches. (The white berry near it belongs to a snowberry that has grown into the barberry).

Bushtit's Nest in Barberry

Bushtit’s Nest in Barberry

Bushtits are tiny grey birds with long tails that hang out in groups, flitting through the garden at times through the summer. Their nests are woven of things like grasses, lichens and spider silk, suspended in a shrub, with holes near the top for the birds to come and go. I was surprised to find this nest, but now that I know it’s there, I’ve decided to postpone the pruning job until I know whether bushtits re-occupy nests from one year to the next.

This is one of the great things about being a gardener. You have to know what’s going on in your little paradise, and you have to accept that it is the domain of creatures besides yourself. The gardener can’t go along in happy ignorance — or at least the responsible gardener can’t. Yes, I have every right to prune “my” barberry bush, but I’ve decided not to exercise that right until I know whether it will harm the creature that was using the bush as a nesting location.

Gardening is in large part a matter of observation. Almost every day during the growing season, I walk around the place, just looking. How is plant X doing? Is plant Y spreading too quickly? Have the raccoons dumped the rocks into the pond again? (They have. Every time). Along with all those details, I make a multitude of other observations. Aphids on roses, sparrows in the lilac, moss spreading among the rocks of the paths, different sorts of mushrooms in various parts of the garden. Some of these things demand action, but most are simply interesting. After more than twenty years of gardening on this patch of land, I have come to expect certain phenomena to recur.

When you know a place in detail, you enter into a relationship with it that is deeper and more complex than when a piece of land is merely “real estate.” Which is why, as Henry Mitchell said, “Compared to gardeners, I think it is generally agreed that others understand very little about anything of consequence.”

Ephemeral Treasures

Last night I listened to a ten-and-a-half minute TED talk about clouds by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. Think about that — a society whose purpose is to appreciate clouds. That’s definitely something I can relate to. I love clouds. Every day I make notes of the maximum and minimum temperatures at my place, and also the types of clouds, when there are any. (Lately they have been just about nonexistent here, with unbroken sunshine almost every day for the past three weeks). In the winter, clouds here are usually strato-cumulus or stratus. In summer we mostly see cumulus, which often form suggestive shapes, such as giant popcorn or fluffy white roast chickens. Alto-cumulus can look like flocks of sheep in formation, tinted orange or pink at sunset. Cirrus clouds are wispy and delicate, sometimes whipped into curlicues by upper atmosphere winds, making what I think of as a written sky.

I love fog, too, even while acknowledging that it makes driving difficult. (So many things make driving difficult, which suggests that maybe we should drive less). Fog simplifies the landscape, removing colour and detail. Foggy days (very rare where I live) are special, sort of like snow days without the snow. It feels as though regular life has been suspended and something tremendous is about to happen. Sadly, what happens is that the fog burns off and the ordinary resumes, which is why one must enjoy the mystery while it lasts.

Noticing and appreciating the ephemeral is an essential skill to enjoying life. Plants, birds, bugs, moss in sidewalk cracks, the way the air smells, the way things are lit up or shadowed in the course of the day — small things, tiny even, but always there to be noticed and absorbed. These details, once registered in the brain, are like a compost heap that enriches the mind. Maybe.

Look! See! Now!

There is a smoke bush (Cotinus species) near my workplace that is right now in fall glory.  All summer its leaves are an interesting green-flushed red, much lighter than the popular variety “Royal Purple.” This plant, whose variety I do not know, grows in full sun on a clay soil. I think it gets regular watering in summer from underground sprinklers. A few weeks ago, it began changing colour and has now attained a combination of reds, orange, orange-yellow and remnants of green that make it glow as if with an inner fire.

Smoke bush in glowing autumn colour

I have admired this shrub at this stage of colour the past three or four autumns, and I’m happy to have this picture, because visual perfection in plants is a fleeting phenomenon. This is one of the most important things I’ve learned as a gardener.

Gardens are part of the natural world, however manipulated by us, and are therefore ever-changing. Every week, every day, even, presents a new scene. Plants go from sprout to stalk to bud to bloom to seed to withering in a matter of months, and the gardener had better be paying attention, amid all the tasks of her busy life, or she will miss the point of the exercise altogether. An individual bloom, of a rose or peony, for example, lasts a week at most. A spike of delphiniums holds its perfection for maybe two weeks before individual florets start to get that “I’ve had enough” look. Fall displays of coloured foliage last for weeks, but inevitably a windstorm comes and it’s all over. I fully expect to find that smoke bush more or less bare when I go back to work next week.

But these things are cyclical; they recur. Every year plants grow, bloom and fade. Old gardeners know this, and look for their favourite sights every season, reassured to see the crocuses in spring (and fall), the daylilies’ bloom scapes in summer, the smoke bushes going through their colour changes in fall. The thing is to look and see everything there is to be seen, every time, because nothing lasts forever. The blue poppies are overwhelmed by competing tree roots or succumb to crown rot. The roses are defoliated by black spot and refuse to flower. The guy across the street decides he doesn’t want that smoke bush any more and cuts it down. All of these things are bad, but if you really paid attention and soaked up the colours and perfumes and textures when they were there, at least you have memories to draw upon.

This applies even more to the world beyond your garden gate, where you have no say in what happens. Pay attention. Really see that tree, that interesting rock, that nifty old house. Next week or next year they may be gone, and if you didn’t store up memories of them, you won’t even be able to remember that they were there. But if you go through the world with your eyes open, you will see all sorts of wonderful things.

Moss between stones

Weeding Part 1: Know What You Are About to Kill

If you garden, you weed. That’s the inevitable fact. Opening the soil gives weed seeds the opportunity to sprout, and since weeds are tough characters that easily out-compete most domestic plants, they must be “managed,” which means removed, destroyed or killed. Weeding season is upon us now, but before seizing their preferred tools and doing battle, gardeners would do well to sharpen their attention and open their eyes.

This may not apply to gardens that are neat and tidy, where the distinction between ‘garden plants,’ and ‘weeds’ is clear and distinct. My garden is a motley situation, a chaotic pluralism whose occupants range from undisputed non-weeds (blue poppies, delphiniums, hybrid lilies) to herbs (which can be surprisingly weedy) to tough plants with tendencies to colonize (peach-leaf bellflower, periwinkle) or seed mightily (campion, mullein, toadflax).

Since the early days of this garden, certain plants have transitioned from welcome and wanted to suspect to weeds. If a plant is to be removed, it’s easier to do it when it’s a mere seedling than weeks later when it has become firmly rooted and requires more effort to extract, or, even worse, when it has bloomed and gone to seed, thus ensuring its presence forever. On the other hand, if you want certain plants in your patch and depend upon seedlings for this, you need to recognize those tiny plants so you will not inadvertently yank them out or mow them down along with the weeds.

For example,  borage is a pleasant herb (however useless in the kitchen), with its clusters of blue flowers over prickly leaves. It seeds enthusiastically, however, which means that you will have way too much of it unless you pull up most of the seedlings. So if you see its solid little leaves emerging in the lettuce patch, you will want to yank them out, but if a couple turn up among other herbs, or next to the scarlet runner beans, you would do well to spare them and let them grow.

I can recognize dozens of plants when they are still infants — maples, laburnums, hollies, foxgloves, mulleins, toadflax, campion, lavender, lemon balm, arugula, lady’s mantle, violets, various euphorbias, hellebores and many others, including definite weeds such as shepherd’s purse, which appeared in the area a few years ago and is probably here to stay. I pull up or hoe out most of them, but not without recognizing them first. “Hello Toadflax, goodbye, Toadflax; hi there, Mullein, OK you can stay.”

Twice, this policy of seedling recognition has paid off handsomely. Years ago I bought a plant of Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea,’ a yellow ornamental grass with more substance than Bowles’ golden grass, Milium effusum ‘Aureum.’ I made the mistake of assuming it was as tough and drought-tolerant as Luzula nivea, the snowy woodrush, which borders on being a pest at my place. One April I admired my plant in full bloom, then paid it little attention until July, when I found it brown and dead. Efforts to find a replacement locally failed. One nursery owner informed me that there was no demand for this grass, so they didn’t stock it. I was about to order a plant by mail, but I found what appeared to be a seedling — bright yellow, among a bunch of equally yellow sprouts of Bowles golden, except that this one seemed more robust and perky. Hoping it was Luzula, I moved it to a pot and kept a close eye on it until I was sure. I planted it back into the border and have taken more notice of it since.

A similar story with Salvia regeliana: from one plant, I got several more by self-seeding, and took it for granted. Then all those plants disappeared. I suspect it’s naturally short-lived, like many salvias. But the following spring I found a couple of seedlings that might have been mulleins, but their leaves were darker green and wrinkly, rather than fuzzy. They looked a bit like foxgloves, but not entirely. Could they be offspring of the lost salvias? They were and still are.

All this leads to observations that apply to many things in life, but especially to gardening. Pay attention. Take your time. Don’t take things — or plants — for granted. Gardening is not a sport in which you get points for speed.