Garden Envy

During a visit to Oregon this month, I walked into my brother-in-law’s living room and was mesmerized by four old-growth camellia bushes outside a large side window. They were so heavy with stunning blossoms that they took my breath away.

Never have I felt more garden envy than I did in that moment.

Picture hundreds of pink ruffled tutus dotted with fresh Pacific Northwest rain. Hundreds of red sunbursts with yellow stamens reminiscent of Hawaiian hibiscus. Hundreds of paper white puffs tucked amid broad, green leaves like a ready-made bridal bouquet.

Immediately I wanted this kind of evergreen fairytale in my own yard.

Alas, living in the high desert of Northern Nevada, trying to replicate the splendor of these camellias is impossible. They do well in shade or dappled sunlight, which are in pretty short supply here. They don’t like extreme heat or alkaline soil, which is exactly what we do have. I still thought I might try one until I called our local nursery. “Too tender. We don’t carry them.”

It’s not that we don’t have many attractive choices for desert landscapes. Roses, honeysuckle, moonlight broom, lilacs, forsythia and bridal wreath spirea all usher in springtime with colorful blooms and heavenly scents.

Can I help it if I also have what can only be described as a spiritual adoration for everything else God created on this good earth?

With that question in mind, I found it delightfully serendipitous that I felt this soulful garden envy at the same time I was reading a new book called Holy Envy.

Written by Barbara Brown Taylor, the memoir is a treasure chest of insights the author gained as a professor of Religion 101 at a Christian liberal arts college. She’s an Episcopalian priest and, in the process of leading spiritual field trips for 20 years, she found something to love about all religions while remaining faithful to her own.

From Hinduism, she learned that religion is not a competitive sport. From Judaism, she learned it is not our beliefs that define us but what we do and how we live. From Buddhism, which is actually more a way of life than a religion, she learned that evangelism in its purest form is like a rose. “It simply spreads its fragrance, allowing people to respond as they will.”

Perhaps what I like best about her story, though, is the comparison of religions to the ocean. Each is a wave. Together, they are the sea.

Gardening is very much like that. The robust camellia belt across the humid southern states and up the west coast is enviable. But it’s not all there is. Here, purple sage blooms throughout the desert summer but wouldn’t like the moisture and shade the camellia covets. Likewise, the succulent yucca, with its impressive stalk of bell-shaped flowers, would disappoint a gardener in a cold, wet climate.

Garden envy or holy envy, I live in constant wonder that there is something to love in every wave in the sea.

 

Run for the Roses

While browsing around my garden last week, I was surprised that the roses most anxious for spring are two that were not bred for the Northern Nevada climate.

Run for the RosesMy 2016 Portland Rose Festival Parade Roses, started in an Oregon nursery and transported here on faith, are greening up in eager anticipation of the blooming season. Even better, ruby shoots of new growth are forming on the emerald canes.

Like a prize stallion in a run for the roses, I expect that the rich, pink buds of these transplants will burst out of the starting gate before most of my other bushes have saddled up for the race. In fact, I’d bet my last dollar on that.

The value of going first, of not being afraid to bloom while others watch and wait, is a notion that actually occurred to me last summer. On bushes that produce roses in bouquet style, I noticed that typically one bud will explode in a flash of brilliant color while those around it seem to creep toward maturity. It’s as though the one is leading the way saying, “Come on, everybody. If I can do it, so can you.”

Greta Thunberg is like that.

If you don’t know the name, let me introduce you. She’s the 16-year-old Swedish girl who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her fearless and determined effort to raise awareness about climate change. Correction. Her effort to get adults to do something about climate change.

Go FirstLast August, when she first began school walkouts and protests in front of the Swedish parliament, she was a lone figure. Now around 70,000 youth in 400 cities regularly walk out of school on Fridays to demonstrate their concern. And get this. Last week more than 1.5 million kids in 125 countries participated in a worldwide climate strike.

It’s worth mentioning that Greta has inspired this impressive youth movement even with the challenge of Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s on the Autism spectrum, and one of the characteristics is difficulty with social interaction. For one thing, someone with Asperger’s may continue a conversation past socially acceptable norms because they don’t notice the social cues that signal most of us to shut up.

Let that sink in.

Is it strange that a 65-year-old woman who grows roses in Nevada is in absolute awe of a 16-year-old who has captured global attention?

Most of us will never achieve a fraction of Greta’s influence. But we can learn something from her and from my Oregon roses growing in the Nevada desert. They aren’t afraid to go first. And we shouldn’t be either.

Are you holding back on something? Is there a dream that you’ll “someday” pursue or a movement you’ll “someday” support? Are you waiting for someone else to test the waters?

Don’t wait anymore. Jump in. Go first. Bloom first. Or as Dan Fogelberg sang in 1982, Run for the Roses.

“It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance, and it’s high time you joined in the dance.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdDwm3QIwfg

Heart and Soul

Every rosebush in my garden has my heart. If one begins to struggle, it also has my soul.

From deep within, I draw upon my natural instincts to tend to the afflicted and distressed. It doesn’t matter what they need. If it’s in my power to provide it, then I provide it.

More water? I drag the heavy hose across the yard to supplement the daily ration from the drip system. Special fertilizer? I drop to my knees to sift healing granules into the soil. Strategic pruning? I gladly reach inside the thorny web to clip a sickly cane or invasive sucker.

And always, I speak of their beauty in warm tones, gently brush my hand across leaves and petals, and let them know they have a caretaker who loves them.

The whole experience of caretaking in the garden is so similar to caregiving in the human world that it’s like a vast reflection in a cosmic mirror.

My mother was 77 when she came to live with me in 2001 and was 80 when her health took a serious turn for the worse. She came back from what looked like the brink and lived nine more years.

Not without considerable care.

Check-ups, medical tests, procedures? I escorted her and stayed with her every moment the doctors would allow. Prescriptions? I sorted a rainbow of pills into multi-compartment trays and ensured she took them all. Embarrassing accidents, wound care? I slipped on latex gloves and did what I had to do.

Wisely, we hugged often and spared no words when it came to expressing our love. When she passed away in 2013, there truly was nothing left unsaid.

This past week, all of the ailing bushes I’ve tended in the garden, along with all those precious years of caring for my mother, washed over me in quantum waves while I’ve tended my husband. He had cancer surgery last week. Details are his to share if he chooses. Suffice to say “thumbs up” so far.

Caring for him is another story, though, and it’s mine.

The basic tenets of the task are familiar – food, drink, reassuring words, doing what you have to do. Something new is a stubborn independence that my roses lack and my mother quietly suppressed.

“No” is the word of the day.

As soon as we knew he needed surgery, I promised my husband I would do anything in the world to help with his recovery. Anything. By the day of the surgery, I had instinctively resurrected my caregiver’s don’t-worry-I’ll-take-care-of-everything posture. The day after we came home, I had to let that go.

As it turns out, he mostly needs me to let him lead this dance.

It was a surprising, new lesson for a seasoned caretaker who usually thinks she knows best. But I got it almost right away. When you’ve known each other since American Pie conjured up images of driving your Chevy to the levee with Don McLean, words aren’t as important as heart. Or soul.

Heart and Soul

Something to Count On

Every year about this time, I start to feel an itch.

It first flickers in the back of my mind and slowly makes its way down my shoulders and arms. Pretty soon my hands and fingers ache for the feel of garden gloves and the weight of pruning shears. Even my knees seem to want to touch the soft earth, though almost as soon as I kneel they’ll undoubtedly begin to curse me.

Always, I’m chomping at the proverbial bit before the garden. It pays me no mind. It’s still fast asleep, and its alarm clock won’t go off for another few weeks. There are no buds on the trees. Canes on the rosebushes are still wintry shades of ginger. Not even a weed has popped its head through the chilly ground.

So I wait. I wait while the calendar counts down. I wait while Mother Nature sends the last of her wet and windy storms. I wait by the windows and look for clues of spring.

Sometimes I do more than wait. I worry. Was there enough moisture this season? Did the temperature drop too far below freezing too often? Will everything wake up strong and healthy?

That’s about the time I take a deep breath and resurrect pictures of the garden from prior years. It’s reassuring to see the vibrant colors and the thick foliage. It reminds me that I can count on spring.

Being able to count on something is such a blessing, don’t you think?

It seems serendipitous that, in the days and weeks since I shared news about three loved ones who have cancer, I’ve been able to count on something besides spring. You. The one with your eyes on this page right now.

This stormy day, while I wait for the latest winter advisory to pass, seems like a good time to thank you all for your prayers and messages. They’re priceless. As are you.

Most especially …

Thank you, John, for generously paying for Saturday brunch even though you were at a table full of women who have a habit of talking about things you’d sometimes rather not hear.

Thank you, Mary and Diane, for the cheerful cards and notes. And to Mary again for volunteering to sit with our family at the surgery center on Wednesday while we wait for news about the leader of our band.

Cathy, you’ve done more than this, but I’m compelled to call out your text message that began, “Now that I’ve stopped crying….” It meant so much to have someone care enough to weep at the fretful news I’d just shared.

Leslie, Jesse, Lori, Paul, Joan, Barb and Jan – I’d be lost without your unconditional love and ready support even when some of you are in the midst of your own challenges.

By this time next month, when the first flowers are getting ready to grace the garden, I’ll be remembering you all. It’s a gift to know I can always count on spring. And on you.

Rose Garden in Spring 2018

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

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.)

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

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.