Earth Up

Today in the rose garden my bushes are resting in a blanket of white. It’s been snowing off and on for the past couple of weeks and more is expected. In Northern Nevada and the Sierra, we’re on track to set snowfall records.

Yet as I write this, the clouds are coming apart like old seams on a gray dress, revealing a shiny blue underskirt. The sun is taking advantage of the moment, throwing delightful shadows across the yard and igniting tiny points of light on the crispy snow. It’s as though someone tossed handfuls of diamonds on the back patio, and they’re out there just waiting to be collected.

Admiring the utopic but chilly scene, I’m grateful that I mounded plenty of organic mulch around the crowns of my rosebushes in the waning days of autumn to protect them from winter elements. You may have heard a gardener call this “earthing up.”

And now, as is my habit, my thoughts about gardening turn to life outside the rocks and roses in our yard. I find myself comparing the fall mulching to the way our immediate family quickly “earthed up” around three that were diagnosed with cancer in the last six weeks – prostate, breast, bladder.

Two will go under the knife in about nine days. The third will have chemotherapy first, then surgery. There’s little need to describe the anguish and worry for the family or the grueling treatment for the patients. Even if you haven’t had cancer yourself, then it’s highly likely you know someone who has.

What is more heartening to describe is the almost mystical way a family draws closer in moments like these. The roots are already intertwined, but somehow they manage to stretch out further and become more interdependent. You can’t tug at one without tugging at the rest. Everything that happens to one happens to all.

Case in point, the rear neighbor at my last home grew prolific flowering bushes that sometimes poked their pretty heads through the slats of the fence. For a fledging gardener like me, that was pleasant enough. But whatever he used to enrich his soil filtered into my soil and the plants on my side of the property line flourished as well. His efforts were like a prayer said for one but showered on many.

In this trying time, I like to think of our family as a collection of trees and flowers and bushes that appear to stand alone but, if you look beneath the surface, are eternally and inalienably connected. Turn off the drip system and you withhold water from every living thing on the line. Fertilize a single bush and the ones around it also absorb the boost.

The clouds are merging again now. A few snowflakes are drifting on a light breeze. Shadows have drawn up, and the sparkling diamonds have been collected by the elusive fairies that inhabit our garden.

I am left with a prayer. Said for three but showered on many.

Winter Scene - Earth Up

Show Up

When Katie, my happy-go-lucky Springer Spaniel, was alive, she and I took a walk around all the paths in our back yard every evening weather permitting. I didn’t always want to go. She consistently persuaded me with her gleeful anticipation.

Katie - Springer SpanielShe’s been gone more than two years, but I can still picture her out there among the roses and the aspens. What a girl. She was never more content than when she was by my side, and she never tired of poking her nose in familiar bushes in the hope of discovering something new.

Her “cute dog trick” (as my mother called it) was to sniff out mysterious creatures in the sandy soil, stare at them motionless like a hunting spaniel that had spied a pheasant, and then pounce. She’d wiggle her butt and her little stump of a tail, spin joyously in circles, and then do it all over again.

We never actually saw what she was chasing, but we decided to nickname them graboids after the colossal sandworms in the campy movie Tremors. She didn’t catch a single one, but she made it her lifelong mission to try.

Katie Hunting GraboidsWith tears in our eyes, this was the last story we shared with our veterinarian as Katie drifted off to her final sleep at the ripe old age of 14. I like to think she’s merrily hunting graboids in heavenly rows of flowers and fruit trees, waiting for me to finally show up.

I still like to stroll around the yard weather permitting. Sure, I’m out there almost daily from spring to fall weeding, pruning, deadheading, and fertilizing. It’s not the same, though, as just enjoying the space.

Sometimes I simply soak up the beauty of the roses I so carefully tend. I take pictures by the thousands and sit on my stone “count your blessings” bench doing exactly that.

Sometimes I see miracles. Once while approaching our ornamental pear tree, I looked up just in time to see a mother hummingbird feed her fledging offspring by sliding her long beak down the little bird’s throat. I stopped dead in my tracks and watched in awe.

I’d like to think I appreciate everything in life as much as I appreciate my garden. I’m not perfect, but I do try. Especially as I’ve grown older, and life has naturally grown shorter, the value of walking in constant gratitude has come into sharper focus.

It’s not just about rare moments like seeing the Northern Lights or your daughter in a wedding gown. It’s the everyday gifts – the majesty of a fiery sunset, a song that unexpectedly touches your heart, the last poignant lines of a soulful book, your goofy dog romping in the snow.

Maybe the best thing we can do is live every day like we’re hunting graboids. It doesn’t matter if the prize is something no one else can see, or that we may never actually catch it. We can still delight in the chase. We just have to show up.

Katie in Snow

Ships Were Not Built for Safe Harbors

Years ago, when I moved into a house that already had a handful of rose bushes in the front yard, I knew next to nothing about caring for them.

Three by the porch were so overgrown that, if not for the colors of their blooms, might have been mistaken for one bush. They were wedged into a tiny flower bed against the garage wall and were beginning to creep over the front path.

By the time spring advanced to summer, the creeping had become invading, and the canes were as unruly as morning hair. It was time to do something.

I had a limited array of garden tools at that point. A couple of trowels perhaps. Definitely no pruning shears. I did have an electric hedge trimmer that had come in handy at my last home where the front yard was ringed entirely with dense, woody shrubs. I plugged it in and started to work.

Now that I understand roses a bit more, I’m haunted by that day. The scream of the trimmer, the flying bits of cane, the flittering pink, white and red petals. The memory is like a blood bath in a horror flick.

I suppose the trimmer would have been acceptable if the bushes had been hedge roses planted for the specific purpose of creating a sculpted border. These were climbers, and they deserved better.

If the roses felt battered or betrayed, they never showed it. They quickly bounced back from the massacre and flourished. Thankfully, by the next year I was more educated and had the right tools. I apologized to the bushes season after season with by-the-book deadheading (angled cut above the first five-leaf set) and carefully pruning them so they would grow upward instead of sideways.

When I moved again several years later and decided to grow a rose garden from scratch, I had enough practice that I wasn’t afraid of the challenge. I had learned that roses are hardy enough to rebound from almost any amateur blunder.

It seems it should be easy to transfer that insight to other aspects of life – to venture forth into unchartered territory unafraid of making mistakes because, well, mistakes are rarely fatal. Instead, most of the time they are the stuff of wisdom and growth.

This is as true as any truism in the annals of human history. Why else would generations of poets, songwriters, and authors repeatedly shower us with reminders about the value of sailing boldly out of safe harbors and taking roads less traveled?

And since they’ve said it so often and so well, why do we still need reminders?

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer to that. As for me, I look in the mirror and ponder my inner fears practically every day. It’s no surprise that the woman looking back rarely utters a helpful word. When she does, she smiles a knowing little smile and simply asks, “Do you remember the day you took a hedge trimmer to those roses?”

Ships Were Not Built for Safe Harbors

(With headline credit to John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic, 1928, A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.)

Playing the Odds

If you’re a gardener, you probably know where you live on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

In the high desert of Northern Nevada, I’m in Zone 7a where the mercury can reach as low as zero in the winter.

Knowing your zone is a little like knowing your banking password. It unlocks valuable information about the plants and trees you should choose if you want your garden to survive the coolest season.

It’s also a little like gambling. You’re playing the odds.

You see, the designers of the zone map understand that not every winter follows the norm and not every plant responds to the elements in the same way. They hedge their bets by saying their designations can steer you toward plants that are “most likely to thrive” in your zone.

Even with that disclaimer, I’m quite fond of the zone map. Without it, I might actually have given in to my fascination with Hawaii and tried to grow my favorite island flowers in the desert. Maybe I could be successful with hibiscus since there is a hardy variety in addition to the tropical. However, the fragrant petals of the delicate plumeria would surely perish, as would the glossy anthurium (whose name falls woefully short of its exotic beauty).

Yes, the zone map is why our yard is as attractive as it is. Desert-friendly honeysuckle, moonlight broom, wisteria, forsythia, and roses are as close to a guaranteed jackpot as one can get around here.

Unfortunately, as the zone map gurus have said, there are no solid guarantees in the garden. Or in life. Every day, it seems, we’re faced with choices that force us to play the odds. With some, if you choose the wrong path you can try again. With others, you get only one roll of the dice.

Take my effort to keep breast cancer at bay.

I was diagnosed with Stage 1B invasive ductal carcinoma in September 2017. My doctors promptly armed me with the cancer version of a zone map. Based on the law of averages, I needed a mastectomy or a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, and five years of a hormone suppressant.

Not quite satisfied, I took their zone map and piled on everything I could dig up about the latest trends in breast cancer treatment. Some of it supported the standard protocol. Some of it didn’t. In the end, I unlocked enough information to accept my doctors’ advice on an à la carte basis. I had the lumpectomy, refused the radiation, and started taking the hormone suppressant.

So far, the odds are working in my favor – more than a year with no recurrence. I know it’s too early to call “Jackpot.” Five years is the standard milestone for celebration. Let’s say I’ve managed to spin three cherries, and the machine paid out enough for me to keep playing for a while.

What the heck. I’m feeling lucky. Maybe it’s finally time to take a chance on that hardy hibiscus.

 

Do the Right Thing

If I want to start my day on a positive note, I often turn to my online gardening or rose enthusiast groups. When members aren’t posting pictures of spectacular blooms or jaw-dropping tomatoes, they’re sharing insights about how best to encourage those garden stunners.

I’m not necessarily eager to run out and douse my roses with a homemade concoction of molasses, kelp, powdered fish and apple cider vinegar. And I don’t have nutrient-rich fish tank water to occasionally replace a normal drip cycle. But I’m always fascinated by ideas that push the boundaries of my personal experience.

In fact, it’s only through the wisdom of others that my garden is as prolific as it is. Well, that and my own fearless ignorance when I first began the adventure. There’s nothing like learning from your own mistakes. But the wisdom of others is the corker.

How would my garden look today had I not hightailed it to my trusted nursery for advice when black spot disease showed its ugly face? I didn’t know what was killing my roses, and I lost half a dozen bushes to that dastardly blight before I was able to arrest it.

How many trees on our property might have perished if someone hadn’t finally told us that watering during winter dry spells is critical in the high desert? Coming from the wet Pacific Northwest, we always thought nature took care of itself in the cold season.

Now that I’m a more experienced USDA Zone 7a gardener, friends sometimes ask me for advice. I strive to frame my answers in a way that emphasizes “this is what I do.”

“In my garden, hydrangeas do best in filtered light.”

“Bayer Three-In-One is my go-to fertilizer, but I would consider others.”

“We set our drip system for 20 minutes morning and evening. There are different schools of thought.”

The idea that my way is the only way, or even the best way for anyone but me and mine, isn’t part of my thought process let alone my conversations.

Maybe that’s why I have such a difficult time initiating or joining discussions about the hotly debated topics in our increasingly hostile world. Once in a while I give it a shot, but it usually ends in a resolution never to do it again. Too often these kind of engagements degenerate into no-win contests about who is more wrong about this or that.

Wrong.

Because rarely is anyone indisputably, 100%, no-doubt-about-it right in verbal sparring matches about the best way to cure the world’s ills.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could address these thorny problems the same way my online gardening comrades share their perspectives? Admittedly, on occasion someone comes on a little strong. But, for the most part, members are there to learn from each other and help each other reach their highest potential as guardians of the soil and caretakers of nature’s majesty.

In the end, that’s what we’re all here for – to help each other. Right?

gardening rights and wrongs

Seasons

I didn’t have to plant a rose garden to understand why my favorite time of year has always been spring.

Like a welcome friend, it arrives about a week before my birthday. In its open hands are the gifts of warmth and beauty. And as the days of the season progress, the gifts only grow more glorious.

I’ve never met a single soul that doesn’t drink it up; not even if they vow their favorite season is summer, autumn or winter.

And that’s as it should be.

After all, every season has its splendors. Summer’s long days of emerald grandeur melt into autumn’s dazzling display of flaming hues, which gives way to winter snow sparkling in silvery moonlight. There isn’t a month of the year that lacks some redeeming majesty.

And yet, every season also harbors potential calamities. Gentle spring rains can become downpours that produce flash floods. Balmy summer temperatures sometimes escalate into oppressive heat that dries out the landscape and intensifies wildfires. Autumn and winter winds may usher in crushing storms and murderous frost.

We are obliged to experience it all. The rapturous delight and the depths of dreadfulness. The sweetly sublime and the supremely sad.

As I write this, my rosebushes are wearing dreary shades of ginger while they stand stoically in heaps of dark gray mulch. The air is sharp. Nothing is stirring except the occasional desert rabbit. Spring seems a lifetime away.

It would be easy to slip into melancholy about the state of the garden or worry whether all of my rosebushes will survive to bloom again. Neither response would be of much use against the ebb and flow of nature.

Rather, I will regard the shades of ginger like comfy flannel pajamas, the gray mulch like a woolen blanket, and the stillness like a peaceful night that invites pleasant dreams. I will replace worry with awe at the wisdom of the ultimate Spirit and the living Earth. I will rest assured that the endless Universe knows what we need and when we need it.

If my words seem more soulful than usual, it’s because the Universe is busy teaching me and mine a divine lesson. The class has only just begun, so I haven’t much to say specifically about it. That day will come. In the meantime, I will roundup my musings with these thoughts.

Every season has its purpose. I’m hardly the first writer to utter those words, and I surely won’t be the last. It’s a truth that dates to the beginning of time, and it will go on being true until the end of time.

Somewhere in the middle of that breathtaking beginning and evolutionary end, it’s up to us to find the meaning and the joy in each new day – no matter whether it seems sweetly sublime or supremely sad – and grow with it.

If the garden can do this from season to season, so can we all. Indeed, like roses in springtime, it is our destiny.Pink Rose With Water Droplets

Heart of the Matter

It’s important to understand the backstory before making decisions in the garden.

To choose a fertilizer, you have to know whether your roses need help blooming or protection from disease. To time your watering system, you have to understand how the soil absorbs moisture.

Alas, I sometimes forget this fundamental rule. Take last summer when I dug up an unsightly shrub to make room for a new rose. The feeder line attached to the drip hose was so entangled in the shrub that I had to yank the two pieces apart.

Easy fix, I thought. The hose ends right about there. I’ll slice it off here, cap it, and attach a new feeder.

I made the repairs, went happily about my day, and proudly showed my husband my handiwork when he got home.

“Um, nice job,” he said, “but I think you cut off the drip hose from the water source.”

He installed the drip system almost a decade ago and has done nearly all the maintenance since, so I humbly tested his theory. Sure enough, when I turned on the system, no water reached the newly planted rose. In fact, I had also sacked the water source to several other trees and shrubs.

I suppose the mistake was an honest one. Years of shifting desert sands had partially buried the drip network. I couldn’t see the arteries, so I made assumptions that created a bigger problem.

The next morning I carefully unearthed the disconnected hose. To my surprise, I found that it was not only buried but embedded in the bottom of the concrete and stone boundary that defines the foot paths in our yard. I tried to extricate it to no avail. Ultimately, I did bypass surgery and got the system working properly again.

In the months since, I’ve flashed back to that experience time and again. Perhaps the most profound moment had to do with my son’s business.

He had labored for months over core values designed to enrich the organizational culture. At the end, he was stuck on one word. Pride. Some in his circles were turned off because it brought to mind an oft-misquoted biblical text – pride goeth before a fall. He and I literally spent days trying to find an alternate word that conveyed his message. Purpose, perspective, presence. The list went on.

Finally, in a moment of clarity, my son returned to pride. It wasn’t the word that was lacking. It was the explanation of what it meant in the context of the core values. It was never about boastful pride. It’s about knowing that what you do matters.

I suppose there was a lesson in the exercise of testing substitute words just as there was in mistakenly cutting that drip hose. But it sure would have saved time to first sort out the backstory.

What we do in the garden and in life, what we say, how we treat others – it all matters. And it’s best if it comes from the heart.

garden drip system

From Bitter Comes Sweet

Every bitter situation has at least one sweet moment. In this story, the moment came in the form of a golden forsythia.

It was the spring of 2010, and I was about to put the house my mother and I once shared up for sale. We had moved to a larger place about 18 months earlier just as the market started a downward trend. I had intended to sell the smaller house then, but decided to try renting it out in the hope of an economic upswing. Ultimately, I exhausted my resources and was forced to short sell.

My sister and nephew visited from Oregon around the time my tenants moved out. They volunteered to help me clean out the thigh-high weeds that overwhelmed the back yard. On the third day, while silently cursing the renters’ neglect, I stopped in sudden surprise.

“Leslie!” I called to my sister. “Come over here.”

“What are we looking at?” she asked as she peered over my shoulder.

“Mom’s little forsythia. I forgot all about it. I thought it was dying when we moved out, but it’s green and has new growth. I’m digging it up and taking it home.”

My mother was thrilled when I transplanted the forsythia into the garden outside the living room window. She enjoyed its bell-shaped flowers and stunning arches three more seasons before she passed away. It remains a favorite of mine; not just because it’s beautiful, but because of what it represents.

From bitter comes sweet. From the dark enters the dawn. After the winter comes the spring. It’s like clockwork. Good always emerges from a challenge.

Challenging isn’t a strong enough word to describe the last two years of my career. Abominable is closer. Most of it had to do with a disastrous change of leadership, but during that time I was also diagnosed with cataracts and breast cancer. Early retirement was a chance to escape the collective pressure.

Now, looking back on my first year as a retiree, it’s been so much more than an escape. It’s been a new start. A rebirth. I’ve taken enrichment classes, read several books, started work on a novel I’ve been wanting to write for the last five years, brought order back to our overgrown front and side yards, and started this blog. My vision is better than ever, and my cancer hasn’t returned.

I can identify with the little forsythia I rescued from our old house. Like it, I wasn’t dying. Just forgotten. Or neglected. Or overwhelmed. Or a bit of all three. All I needed was a change of scenery to find myself and flourish.

I know there are scores of people struggling like I was — forgotten, neglected, overwhelmed. My heart goes out to each and every one of them. As we count down to 2019, my wish is that everyone in the throes of bitter tastes something sweet, everyone in the midst of darkness awakens in the light, and that winter gives way to a stunningly beautiful spring.

Forsythia 2013

Merry Ginger Muses

The purpose of this space is to tell stories about my garden and connect lessons learned with other aspects of life. Today everything is turned around.

This morning I spent an hour or so preparing dough for gingerbread men. I’ve never made them. I’ve never even thought about it. Yet, for reasons that elude me, I recently put them on the growing list of things I want to try before my window of opportunity to try new things expires.

So there I was, my grandmother’s old apron tied around my waist, chuckling when I poured molasses into a measuring cup for the first time and realized where the term “slow as molasses” originated. A few minutes later I was laughing again when I dug my cookie cutters out of the back of a cabinet and noticed that the gingerbread man was not actually a cutter. It was a toy from a kitchen set we gave our kids 40-some Christmases ago.

Merry Gingerbread Man“That says two things,” I told my husband. “I hang onto the weirdest stuff, and I’m not much of a baker. Otherwise, I would have noticed before now.”

As amusing as my little adventure was, making the gingerbread dough got into my head in a way I didn’t expect. Sifting the dry ingredients together reminded me of sifting fertilizer into the soil in the garden. Patting the dough into blocks reminded me of patting water and dirt together to build a protective berm around plants to minimize runoff from the drip system.

I began to wonder. If I’m brave enough to try something new in the kitchen, why am I hesitant to try something new in the garden?

For the last few years, I’ve been curious about encouraging hips to form on my roses and harvesting them for tea or potpourri. I’ve even thought about planting a few new bushes more suited to this purpose than my current array. Yet, season after season goes by without a step in that direction.

Why? Well, I guess I’m like nearly everyone else. We dream of things – large and small things like career changes and cookies, costly and free things like vacations and nature walks – but dreaming doesn’t turn into doing. At least not often enough.

As my gingerbread dough chills and I’m writing this piece, I have two windows open on my internet browser. One is a gardening blog that explores how to grow rose hips and suggests using Rugosa roses. The other is a breeder’s website that explains just what a Rugosa is.

I consider my Google searches a good sign. After all, internet surfing for a novice-friendly recipe is the first step I took toward making gingerbread men this Christmas. Maybe, just maybe, spring will see Rugosas in my garden.

At the moment, I don’t know how my first gingerbread men will turn out. Crunchy or gooey, misshapen or perfect – it doesn’t matter. I love those goofy, round-faced guys already. They’re not just cookies anymore. They’re my Merry Ginger Muses.

Have a Little Faith

When winter comes to the rose garden, you rely on faith that you’ve done enough to get your precious bushes through the harsh months ahead.

For me, that means no pruning after mid-September, raking fall debris that could harbor destructive pests, and blanketing mulch around the base and over the crown of every bush. I consider the last step essential in the high desert since the overnight temperatures dip below freezing from November through March.

It isn’t until April, sometimes May, that I know whether my efforts were successful. Knock on wood, I’ve been pretty lucky. Most years all the canes green up, new growth appears, buds form, and beautiful flowers bloom.

The faith that gardeners and farmers place in the Earth is a lot like the faith people exercise this time of year. Maybe you hand a five dollar bill to a ragged man. Perhaps you pay for the coffee the person in the next car ordered. You don’t really know the effect these deeds will have on the beneficiary. You do it on faith that the gesture will make their day just a little bit better.

This year I wanted to take that concept and go big. I wasn’t particularly interested in the typical things people do and that I happily did alongside co-workers before I retired. Christmas dinner, Christmas presents, and other seasonal tokens somehow didn’t sound as helpful as paying a medical bill, wiping a school lunch tab clean, or filling an empty gas tank. As I described it to the social services specialist I contacted, “A Christmas gesture but not necessarily a Christmas need.”

In the end, I took on a wish list for siblings whose parents couldn’t afford to buy presents. It wasn’t my vision, but I was assured it truly was the highest need. I dived in with enthusiasm and recruited my family to help. We checked off nearly every item on the list, threw in a few surprises, and included an unsolicited present for the parents.

I choked up when my husband and I delivered everything to the collection point. At the time, I couldn’t really figure out why. It was just a pile of ordinary gifts. We’ll never even know who these people are. Then it hit me.

Have FaithIt isn’t about the gifts. They will be opened, and the kids will exclaim in momentary delight. The clothes will be worn and outgrown. The treasured toys will wear out.

What will remain is the memory that someone they didn’t know helped them have a nice Christmas. Even if only the parents are aware of the secret, the underlying message will become part of this family’s story. There is good in the world. There are people who care.

Just as I put faith in winterizing my garden, I’m putting faith in our Christmas gesture. One day the effort will bloom. We may not see the flower, but I have to believe that its beauty will make the world just a little bit better.