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.

 

 

Consistency is Priceless

In the spring of 2016 my rose garden was a mess. I could scarcely walk the paths.

Tall climbers were slumped over after their tethers to trellises snapped. Overgrown bushes were tangled in each other’s canes. Ornamental grass was snarled in the roots of two of my favorite hybrids.

I had no one to blame but myself. For whatever reason, I hadn’t given the garden enough attention the prior year.

It took days of back-breaking work to clean everything up and get on with the routine business of weeding and fertilizing. With sweat stinging my eyes, I scolded myself for not practicing a basic rule of thumb from my college days. “Be consistent.” Somewhere in my Rubbermaid bins of memorabilia, I’m sure I still have the certificate my student newspaper advisor gave me to cement the lesson.

Awarded to Laurie Samsel for Consistency in Journalism

It was a made-up prize; an inside joke that memorialized my rough start. Although I turned in a stellar human interest story for my first byline, I followed it the next week with a half-hearted blurb about the college floral program. Mr. Byrd, a fearsome redhead who once played in the NFL, quickly scared the laissez-faire attitude out of me.

“This is pathetic, Samsel!” he boomed.

Since then, I’ve practiced consistency and extolled the virtues of it my entire adult life. It has served me, and those I’ve mentored, quite well. Sometimes it’s been simple. “If you’re going to capitalize a job title in this sentence, then do it all the way through the document.” Sometimes it’s been more complex. “You can’t apply policy this way today and another way tomorrow.”

Why I slipped up in the garden two years ago is a mystery. But untangling that mess is the reason I’m writing this blog right now. Otherwise, I’d likely be tackling my last big project before Christmas – wrapping the stack of gifts hidden in our guest room.

I love the holidays. I love them even more when everything is ready. Over the weekend, my husband and I wore ourselves out getting presents ready to send to distant loved ones and personalizing cards with handwritten notes. I was so single-minded about the whole affair that I didn’t spend a moment thinking about today’s blog post. In fact, I completely forgot.

This morning we stood in line (twice) at the Post Office to send everything on its way. Afterward, somewhere in the dairy section at the grocery store, I remembered that I should be publishing today. For an instant I thought, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll skip this week or write something tomorrow.” Dual images of my neglected garden and Mr. Byrd’s fierce scowl sent me to my laptop five minutes after the groceries were put away.

After that, how could I write about anything but consistency? It’s not a value with much pizazz, but it sure saves you trouble later if you practice it now. Presents? Eh, they can wait. Consistent presence to honor your commitments? Priceless.

Consistent Gardening Saves Trouble

Dream a Little Dream

Anyone with a gardener’s heart will tell you that the effort they devote to it is not just about creating a beautiful landscape. It’s about dreaming.

Gardens are born when you dream of a private paradise where you can relax and refresh your spirit. They fulfill your dreams every spring when the sleeping trees and bushes awake in a joyous explosion of color. Perhaps best of all, gardens give you a place to dream new dreams.

When I’m in my garden clearing weeds or turning fertilizer into the soil, I’m busy with the same tasks in my head. Clearing the clutter of a thousand aimless thoughts gives way to turning over a thousand new ideas. From those ideas come the dreams that bring meaning and purpose to life.

In the garden, I’ve let my imagination run wild and dreamed of things that at first seemed out of reach. A big family vacation to Hawaii, retiring early, writing an epic novel. Impossible. How could I find the money or time to achieve any of these dreams? Yet, in the garden, I plotted a path that led me straight to each and every one of them. About the only thing I couldn’t do out there among the roses was execute my plans.

When you think about it, dreaming is more important than anything except your family’s basic survival. We … not a single one of us … was put on this Earth only to earn a paycheck, juggle a budget, grocery shop, do the laundry, and keep our cars in good working order.

We were born to paint and write songs, invent gadgets and find cures, design bridges and build libraries. We were born to let our spirits soar while we’re here and, hopefully, be remembered by someone when we’re gone.

This all comes to mind because my son just asked me to be the Dream Manager for his company. If that’s new terminology for you, a Dream Manager is an investment. Not in the business itself but in the people who work there. Their role is to help employees live the life they were born to live and become the people they were born to be. As the name implies, they do it by helping them identify and move toward their dreams.

Since I retired almost a year ago, I haven’t had many idle moments. I spend nearly every day pursuing one dream or another. I’m sure I won’t stop dreaming until the day I die. Deciding to sacrifice a few days a month to accept my son’s offer took a lot of thought. That is until I realized it wasn’t a sacrifice at all.

It will be like planting a new garden. Instead of roses, I’ll be encouraging people to grow. Maybe they’ll encourage others to grow. Maybe it will be like tossing a stone into a pond.

With any luck, I’ve tossed a stone in your pond today. Remember, you only get one life. Dream up one for the record books.

Rose Garden Dreams

It’s More Fun to Give

In Giving We ReceiveEvery spring I’m blessed with the natural beauty of colorful roses, flowering trees, and fragrant honeysuckle. The greening and budding and general rebirth across our backyard is like a gift that I get to open again and again.

Now, as the gift-giving holidays surround us, I want to let you in on a little secret. I didn’t originally throw myself into landscaping the yard to please myself. I did it for my mother.

My mother lived with me the last 12 years of her life. It wasn’t because she loved the desert. She was drawn to the lush valleys, forests and beaches of the West Coast. The vast expanse of sand and sagebrush in Nevada was her final destination only because I was here and could offer the support she needed.

As years passed and she became increasingly homebound, I tried my best to grow lovely things for her to gaze at from the comfort of her recliner. When we moved to our current house and the “picture” window proved painfully small, I had it replaced with one four times the size so she could more easily see the wisteria climb up the trellises and watch the yellow finches dangle from feed socks.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the gift I created for her has become, instead, a gift for me. Countless poets, spiritualists, and deep thinkers have long strived for the perfect words to remind us that what we give eventually circles back to us.

One of my grandsons said it well. During our annual holiday shopping excursion, he and his brother were about to go over-budget on gifts for their parents. I pointed out that it would leave little from their Christmas piggy banks for themselves. “It’s more fun to give,” the younger of the two said and handed another gift to the checker.

It’s not difficult to understand why this is so. Seeing someone happy, and knowing we are responsible, is like injecting pure sunshine straight into our own hearts.

It would be easy to turn today’s musings into a tired reminder to help the less fortunate this holiday season. Fulfill a wish from an angel tree. Donate a bag of groceries to the local food pantry. Drop some change in the bell ringer’s pot.

By all means, do those things. But be aware that arm’s-length gestures won’t produce the kind of inner sunshine that makes you eager to give tomorrow and the next day and the next.

For a lasting high, I suggest planting roses. No, not the kind that grow in your backyard. The kind my mother always said popped up in your garden in Heaven whenever you spread the seeds of love. Face-to-face, heart-to-heart, give the most precious gift of all to someone who is hurting or lonely or lost. Give love. Give it generously. Your piggy bank can never run out because every measure of love you share will circle back to you in spades. Take it from my grandson, it will be fun.