Monday, December 28, 2009


I’m sure the gardener who lives in this prefab house in downtown Carnation had no idea how big a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron gigantea) would get. Actually the current gardeners, who I noticed barely find the time to mow the lawn, probably didn’t plant the tree, and the house even now seems like an afterthought. Which it probably is, replacing one of the older Craftsman style houses one finds in town. This tree is a sentinel in town, dwarfing not only the prefab with which it magnanimously shares a lot, but also the one story strip mall across the street, where we grocery shop. And actually all of Carnation’s humbly low architecture.

This tree, a sentinel above this ticky-tacky house made predominantly of conifer wood with some metal, glass and plastic thrown in for good measure, is a landmark on Tolt Avenue, Highway 203. It lets me know where my turn for the grocery store is. I still navigate by landmarks. Someone gave me a GPS once, but I never use it. It gives me more of a headache than looking at a map and following an inky line across the page with my index finger, and then paying attention when I drive. Like crossword puzzles I think this sort of navigation is good for keeping the mind fresh and the awareness alert. Besides I still don’t like being told what to do. Especially by an annoyingly nasal computer generated female voice.

Sometimes I wonder if the person who planted that tree had any idea what they were doing. Were they merely trying to screen their bedroom window from the glaring lights of the Shell station across the street? Did they have any idea that they were creating a landmark for future Carnation inhabitants? There is no better use of conifers than as landmarks. Their constancy, ‘O tannenbaum, O, tannenbaum’, is remarkable. When I plant conifers I like to think of them as landmarks and place them accordingly. Not that I’m trying to create landing strips for UFOs. But you have probably all been guided by a conifer into a gas station, or parking lot without even noticing it. It amazing how many arborvitae ( Thuja occidentalis), or creeping junipers (Juniperus horizontalis) let drivers know where the boundaries are at Shell stations. You are all familiar, no mater what part of the country you live in, of the ubiquitous arborvitae hedge [follow link to my article on arborvitae] guarding a property line, or screening a view.

When using conifers as landmarks in the garden, I think of them as architectural punctuation. Sometimes they are full stops, like a hedge, and sometimes a languorous pause, or a bridge when used as specimens. They are everywhere used to this end. Though their status as guardians is buried under the hurry of modern life.

I used Italian cypress ( Cupressus sempervirens ‘Glauca’) in these mixed borders, not only as exclamation points, but also as bridge between the tall native conifers behind these borders. Their columnar habit mimics the massive trunks of these trees and carries the colonnade up to the lawn, like you are walking through a tumbling ancient temple.

I also like to use arborvitae ‘Rheingold’ not only for it’s unique coloration and texture which blends and contrasts with the perennials and annuals I use in these kaleidoscopic borders, but also as commas in a border that might seem to ramble on if it weren’t checked by their coniferous presence.

I like to use the somewhat floppy ‘Heather Bun’ Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). Because it takes a bit of shade and heavier wetter soils than most conifers, it is indispensable in this perennial border on clay. Its feathery texture works well with astilbes and Japanese iris.

I am also a great fan of yews ( Taxus sp.) There is a cluster of ancient yews near Forthausen, Germany, where my friend Eckhard had a farm. They are said to be the sight of ancient druidic rituals. On one of those rare hot days in Germany, we went to the shady valley where they live and sat at their roots which spilled into a bright sonorous creek. There was something magical about this spot. Was it just the escape from my urban life in Cologne? Was it the positive ions thrown up by the creek which bubbled and tumbled through the rocks and ancient yew roots? Or was there a lingering druidic presence we could sense when we finally quieted down and went into a hypnagogic trance induced by the creek's song? Powerful trees,a thousand years old. A portal between this world and the next? They are now held high by a different governing force, the German forest service which considers them a national treasure. And no one was there. There was no sign at the road advertising them, no parking lot close by. Just an impenetrable silence and sanctity I have only found a few other places.

I like the funereal heft yews lend to the garden. A darkness which most clients don’t like. Their long association with grave yards, where they served not only as emblems of resurrection but also because they're said to purify the air, and their poisonous berries have given them a sinister association contrary to their natural beauty.

I used this dwarf golden Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’) in some mixed borders for its year round bright impact. And to slip a little druidic magic under my clients’ noses, creating a landmark not only at the edge of a border, but possibly between this world and the next.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Even in winter it is hard to image a world without flowers. Where would our fruit come? How would we make a romantic intentions known? Yet once this was a flowerless planet covered in mosses, ferns, cycads. And conifers.
It’s equally hard to imagine a flowerless garden, though there are plenty. To most a garden is about flowers. But not to Bob Fincham owner of Coenosium Gardens a mail order conifer nursery near Eatonville, Washington. His 5 acre nursery has over 600 different conifer. And if you think that’s a little redundant, a tad boring, or just plain crazy, you’re like me. But after I visited the garden in November, with a tour by Bob himself I changed my mind. This garden was anything but redundant or boring. And though Bob’s passion for conifers may seem a bit crazy, he is a very level headed guy with an incredible passion for conifers. My visit has turned me from a conifer worshipper in the “O Tannenbaum” kind of way to a devotee.
The absolute kaleidoscope of textures and colors made this place endlessly interesting. Anyway I’ll let the pictures do the talking, after all their worth 1000 words, or at least 974.

Bob is integral in creating the dwarf conifer collection at South Seattle Community College which I visited on a very cold and sunny day a few weeks ago.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Each day I drive through a canyon. Not of stone, but of conifers towering 5 stories or more above Highway 202. They are mostly Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), the most popular Christmas tree in the U.S. There are a few western red cedars (Thuja plicata) and even fewer Sitka spruce (Picea sitchesis), along with arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) and white pine ( Pinus strobus) thrown into the mix by man. I drive through this gauntlet from country life to suburban work and back. All summer long I barely notice these conifers, but his time of year when all else slips back their magnificence is revealed and I can’t help but admire our stunning native trees.
My sister Eileen calls all conifers Christmas trees, more out of affection than ignorance I suppose. And I’ve had clients want conifers planted in strategic spots for lighting up at Christmas. And others who didn’t want conifers because they think of them only as Christmas trees.
I was surprised in my limited search for the history of the Christmas tree, how conflicting that history is. Apropos of The Bible the prophet Jeremiah decries the bringing of cut trees into the house and decorating them as heathen and warns the Israelites to stop, on the other hand the prophet Isaiah decorated his sanctuary with, among other things, fir boughs.
The fir tree is definitely what the Germans are singing about when they sing “O Tannenbaum”. Before botanist got nit-picky with plants "fir" was a more general term for needled conifers including spruce. It is not coincidental that the name is close to the word "fire". These trees, easily ignited were thought of as fire trees, some even considered them the storehouse of the sun. Now “fir” refers to species in the genus Abies. The word spruce, the botanical Picea, comes from spruce fir or pruce fir meaning the fir tree of Prussians. And Douglas fir is not a true fir at all, but I don’t want to make this as confusing as the holiday they’ve come to represent.
Decorating with conifer boughs at winter time and in particular at Winter Solstice has a long history of practice and prohibition. The first Christians in Rome considered it a pagan act as did the early puritanical Americans; both forbade the practice. The history of what we know call the Christmas tree started in Rhenish Prussia, western Germany, in the 16th Century and remained there until Queen Victoria persuaded her German Husband, Prince Albert, to put one up in the palace in 1840. The rage for Christmas trees that this began in England and subsequently America and the rest of the world has not stopped to this day.
Most people I talked to in the last weeks said they get a tree because they love the smell in the house. This comes as no surprise to me. Shamans in North America, as well as ancient Celts used the fragrant boughs of conifers, especially firs and spruce to chase away evils spirits. Conifers are even ritually planted in graveyards to protect the departed from malevolent forces trying to capture their souls while pointing heavenward like road signs.
When I asked my in-house, speculative biochemist, Michael about this, he said there were probably some mood elevating compounds in the essential oils of conifers. My google search turned up evidence from folk wisdom to scientific research to support his suspicions. I know like many I love the smell, but I always thought it was the spiked egg nog elevating my spirits.
The subtle power of conifers is buried under the tinsel. The other day I was in a Pho’ restaurant for lunch. On the counter next to the Buddha, you know the big fat smiley Buddha, “a right jolly old elf”, was a little purple foil Christmas tree with over-sized red balls all over it. I was sorry I didn’t have my camera, or ask one of the barely English speaking staff what it meant to them.
Luckily the meaning of Christmas, and it’s tree, are as jumbled as the proverbial box of Christmas lights you swore you’d put away tidily. It has freed Christmas from dogma and allows each to find their own meaning, whether it is Christian, Pagan, Capitalistic or Unitive. In my own evolving relationship to the holiday, which used to set me spinnin, I am finding a simpler way. Less shopping, less eating, less stress. And as they say less is more. For me the more became a deeper interest in conifers as garden elements, as plants, and as emblems. I am only at the beginning of this new relationship to conifers. It had Michael and I heading out to the rain forest a few weeks ago. Yet it did not stop us from going to Carnation Tree Farm and cutting down a Norway spruce (Picea abies) and decorating it.
But it also has me looking a lot harder at these plants which have accompanied us through our history, silently, and potently.

One of my favorite conifers, and a popular Christmas tree, the noble fir (Abies procera). Here is the cultivar called 'Noble's Dwarf' which I photographed at Coenosium Gardens near Eatonville in late November. I'll be posting more photos from this incredible collection in a few days.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


The Germans say “The weather changes at the full moon.” Ever since I heard that I‘ve been a casual, even erratic, yet ernest observer. I love to find truth, or falsehood, in superstitious axioms. Strangely, from my scientifically unreliable observations, this one holds some truth.
A little over a week ago the clouds parted like the Red Sea, only this time it was the full moon not Moses and his magic staff. It filled the valley with moon shadow-- “leapin’ and hopin’ on a..”-. The light was silvery blue as I walked down to the river and I could feel it ushering in our first truly killing frost. Just the day before the mix of last spring’s pink snapdragons and this winter’s first pink camellias made me a little dyspeptic. After all it was the first day of December. I was starting to think winter would never come.

But it came.

So I got the song “My Favorite Things” stuck in my head, again. And though snapdragons and camellias are definitely 2 of my favorite things, so are frost and clear skies and biting cold. My nordic genes and Wisconsin upbringing can't imagine a year without “a silver white winter melting into spring”. We don’t get much of that here in the Northwest. Not even out in the Snoqualmie Valley where Michael and I live a stone’s throw ( if you have a good strong arm) from the snow covered Cascades. So this past week, with its record breaking cold, has been a nice respite from the seamless gray of November. I have not yet started to think about my clients’ hebes and rosemaries, 2 other of my other favorite things.
Once when a client of mine was handing me a lemon merengue pie I said, “Lemon merengue is my favorite.” Which it is.
My client retorted, “You always say that. Last week pepita brittle was your favorite.”
I was humbled by this observation. Was I a liar?
Not really. “I guess I’m a lucky guy to have so many favorites,” I told her.

I’m lucky to count the leafy patterns of frost among my favorites. And the nordic ditty “Frosti” by Bjork one of my favorite winter songs. And the cabbage “January King” which is being put to the test in December. We’ll see if it’s wearing a crown come January.
I’ve been trying not to cringe when I see our rhododendron, leaves curled up and drooping, at the end of its cold endurance, or the blackened leaves of the fatshedera, which was just coming back after last years cold and flooding. Sometimes you just have to let go, and all it takes is a good stiff frost.
There is no better time to appreciate conifers, though. I just can’t help but sing “ O Tannenbaum”, nor understand what religious importance these evergreens held for early nordic people who saw their ability to stay green through the winter as a truce against the avenging weather gods. So I’ve been doing a little free wheeling conifer research over he past weeks and will be sharing information and photos over the coming month as a Christmas card to you, my readers.

The light faded gloriously silhouetting conifers along the Snoqualmie River.

Friday, December 4, 2009


I realized last weekend that my obsession with age lately is not mine alone. I actually convinced Michael, and the dogs, to drive to the coast with me to see the world’s oldest (more about that later) living spruce.
I have been busy researching and writing about Sitka spruce for my column, “The Story of Plants”, in Garden Notes the quarterly of the Northwest Horticultural Society. Consequently I have spent a lot of time reading about spruces of all kinds. But it was our Northwest native the Sitka spruce, or tidelands spruce, (Picea sitchensis) which captured my imagination. It is a tree I rarely noticed until I decided to write about it. Now I see it everywhere. Well, not everywhere, it has a rather limited distribution fairly close to the coast, and has only a few garden worthy cultivars, which are rarely available. This fast growing conifer has managed to become the most popular plantation tree in the British Isles, though. Here there are still enough wild stands. It is a large part of the lumber industry in Alaska, where it is also the state tree.
Saturday we drove through Tacoma shopping traffic, the worst of our travails, on our trip to the coast. I usually travel to the rain forest in the summer. After a few days of sun on the coast, the cool mossy shade of the forest is a pleasant respite. As we neared the coast I had to crank up the windshield wipers. Yet my excitement rose. We would see the rain forest “in the rain”. That Michael was a willing companion is a testament to his good nature and general affability.

Our first stop at “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree”, a tourist attraction on the south side of Lake Quinault was quick. It was dumping buckets as we pulled to the side of the road, scuttled quickly through puddles and swampland to find “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree” had a paved parking lot only 100 feet away. In our impermeable arrogance we did not put on our rain gear, so we were wet, soaked I should say, quickly, as were the impervious dogs. But that didn’t dampen our awe of this magnificent tree. With a circumference of 55 feet 7 inches and a height of 191 feet, with warty buttresses supporting this massive column of wood, and branches dropped in the recent wind storm lying beside it like felled trees who wouldn’t be awed (in the most virtuous sense of the word.)
The sign before it announced that it was also 1000 years old. Yet this same sign which boldly claimed it “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree” (the previous record holder, in Oregon, fell in a wind storm in 2007) said nothing about it being the oldest. In all the research I had done most authors said Sitka spruces range from 400-750 years old, a few stretched that to 850. But none had mentioned a 1000 year old tree. Had they missed the sign on Highway 101? Or had they, like me, driven by many times with the Reagan-esque thoughts of “ if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”?

“Wouldn’t this tree also be the oldest?” I asked Michael.
The poor guy had no answer. He just shoved the sopping wet dogs back into the truck dutifully.
The tree I had in mind when we set out was one I read about. It lives at the campground at the end of 12 miles gravel road in the Queets Valley. Might it be the oldest? We drove passed scores of fishermen parked along the road which runs parallel to the lower Queets River and deeper into the rain forest. The dense moss that hung, clung and literally coated everything lead me to believe it was not only the conifers which gave Washington the nickname “The Evergreen State”.
Eventually we found that the signed which warned us that the road was closed 7 miles ahead was right. Just before the barricade we could see the mudslide that had wiped out the road years before, though our brand new map still showed the road as complete and the campground accessible.

So we parked and ate our turkey sandwiches and clementines behind the the mist pebbled windshield. Then headed out for a walk. Between the gargantuan trees, and moss and fern plush under story this place was other worldly. Was it the rain that lent the magic? I had been to the rain forest before marveled at its beauty. But this time...It was utterly primeval, even with a road through it. Understandably I wanted to wander off into the green, take a nap, feast on mushrooms, and resume the life of the forest creature I had evolved away from. To dwell once again in this ramshackle splendor, the exquisite collapse and defiant rising up of it all. In this cacophony of silence.

But we wanted to run the dogs on the beach yet that day. So back in the truck we hopped and down the road to the beach. The land seemed to melt into the misty roar of the Pacific, as the little light we had under the cloud cover drifted off toward night. The rain pelted us again and though we had lost our impermeable arrogance we had gained a dog like imperviousness. An imperviousness shared with the Sitka spruce growing right up to the tide line. Here away from the protection of the river valleys they became twisted, threadbare and stunted, probably never reaching great age, as the stormy Pacific often dragged them into the waves.

When we got home I began the clickity-clack of a google search: Oldest Spruce. There was no mention of the massive tree we saw at Lake Quinault. Nor any Sitka spruce. There were only some small twisted Norway spruce (Picea abies) on a mountain top in Dalarna, Sweden. The oldest, recorded as being 9550 years old, stripped the 4767 year old bristle cone pine (Pinus longaeva) of California for the title of “The Oldest Tree in the World.” Actually the oldest living being.
I don’t know that I am truly impressed by “the tallest”, “the fastest”, “the most” or “ the best”. But the superlative “ the oldest” stops me in my tracks. “The World’s Largest Spruce Tree” wasn’t exactly the oldest, not even at 1000 years, yet it woke me to my youth, my brevity in this world. And that was enough.
We have one Sitka spruce on our property, a youngster of around 50 years, my “guesstimation” because I like to share my age with something 60 feet tall. I call it the bear tree because the bear’s path in and out of the swamp wraps around it. And it acts as a sort of end point of cultivation and beginning of wildness. Owls roost in it at night, and in the morning song birds cling in clusters to its branches eating aphids. And in a storm rsaven bounce and swing on it’s wind blown branches. I look forward to growing old, or at least older with it, knowing that neither of us will probably ever be “The Oldest” anything.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Magically the other day, without having read my last post “OLD”, my Chiropractor Kristen Wright began talking to me about “getting old”. Was it something I said? Or could she just feel “old” was on my mind? She warned against the energy-less, dull sort of aging headed toward nursing homes and wheel chairs. Maybe it’s better to imagine golf courses, assisted living and senior cruises (do they still play shuffle board?). I was feeling “old” because I fell and “ruptured” my shoulder. My valuable right shoulder often engaged whether it is pruning, shoveling, doing the dishes, or, like now, typing. So I felt a little old this week, or feared getting old a little more. My livelihood is in my right shoulder. I think Kristen would like me to use my head more. Think about better ways to use my body. “Work well, not hard,” she often tells me.
Although I am getting older, I healed quickly. And with Kristen’s help was back to to pruning, shoveling. And typing.
My father who is also getting older is slowly being dismantled by Alzheimer’s. What I used as a symbol of heightened awareness in the last post was just a pleasant symptom of a disease which now makes him uncontrollably angry, like a child, petulant, like a child, easily hurt, like a child. Is this also a state of grace?
There are many better symbols for the beauty and grace of age: the ancient sequoias of California, the beautiful ruins of the acropolis, the venerable cherries of Japan.
I still want to spend my birthday in Japan one year, under the cherries. My birthday falls during Hanami, the Japanese cherry blossom viewing festival. I love the pictures I’ve seen of the cherry trees, hundreds of years old, propped up with the utmost care and flushed with flowers like a school girl with a crush. And like a school girl’s crush the blossoms fade quickly. This tree represents to the Japanese the fleetingness of this life. Their drunken celebrations revel in it.
There is a Japanese photographer (unfortunately I can’t remember his name) who makes nude portraits of 100 year old women. A large “Eww!” just went off in many puritanical American minds. We live in a land where old is ugly. But this photographer, who spends months living with his models, cooking for them and bathing them before he ever takes a picture sees something else.
These life sized photos, not candid but posed, are not erotic or perverse, but some of the most loving and lovely photos I’ve ever seen. When you stand in front of them you stand in front of radiant mythological beings. You also stand in front of a full length mirror. See yourself in these wrinkled, gravity stretched women. Is it the photographers eye? Or does a sense of self forgiveness rise naturally?Transcendently? Benevolently?
As I get older it is much easier for me to be benevolent to others, and even my self.
There was a very benevolent character on "Six Feet Under", one of the deceased, simply called “Daddy”. He had a harem of wives and a herd of children he held in the embrace of his love cult. One of the precepts of his religion was to “ dance a little dance each day, even if it is only in your heart.” Now, I don’t usually recommend the advice of cult leaders, especially fictional ones form HBO. But there is some truth in what he said, some moving toward childlikeness in this little practice. I don’t always remember to dance ever day, still I think it’s a good idea no matter where it comes from. And if that dance deep in your heart brings a crush like blush to your face all the better.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


My friend and writing teacher, Theo Nestor, author of How to sleep Alone in a King Sized Bed said to me the last time I saw her that I should write a book about old people, because I am always writing about old people. I was puzzled and shocked. But as I ran my finger across the flip file of my mind tracing the umpteen stories I wrote since beginning to write 5 years ago, I realized most of the stories were about old people. The one story about a young person was about an old flame, Bahram Najafi, who was 30 at the time. He was old both culturally, he is Iranian, and at the time spiritually, he had lost both his parents and niece and had fallen into a deep depression, which made him slow and cranky...old. I, having just turned 40 and under Saturn’s influence, living in the Old World ( I had set up camp in Cologne for a few years) was feeling “old” myself. It was a momentarily perfect fit, except that Bahram was the type of lone wolf that is not feral.
When I returned to the States after “things fell apart”, I found everyone here a bit annoying. Like being dropped into a room full of texting teenagers. I got used to it and back into being an American, whatever that means, but still wonder about this fear we have about getting old.
My parents are old now. Of course they were always “old” but now they are really old. And as much as I avoided patterning my life after theirs, as much as I resisted their lessons, especially the one about frugalness; oh, and the one about stick-to-it-tiveness, there is also a great deal I absorbed. I became them in a way. And in becoming them I realize I am becoming old, too. It is inevitable I know but my childish mind puts it’s two impudent feet down and refuses to budged. After all isn’t zen mind beginners mind? Didn’t Jesus say “Such is the Kingdom of God”? I guess he was talking about child-likeness, not childishness.
I am guessing again, when I say my fear of growing old is childish. Is it something inherent or learned? Cultural or personal? I remember when I was very young, truly a child, hearing about Second Childhood. I was not a child looking forward to being an adult. But Second Childhood, that sounded promising. To get childhood again after all you learned from adult life. Wow! I guess Second Childhood has become Alzheimer’s or Dementia in our modern parlance, like my prolifically knitting grandma would probably be told she had OCDC. I like the old terminology.
I recently called home and asked my father, who has Alzheimer’s, what he was doing. When I was growing up he was always doing something (did he have OCDC, too?). He said, in all seriousness, “I am sitting here watching the leaves grow on the apple tree?” Remember the child-like freedom of laying on your back and staring a clouds? I wouldn’t try it today there are no pictures to be seen in our nearly seamless gray sky and you’d get a face full of water. But you get my drift.
The other morning as I drove down the asphalt road through Carnation Marsh a scrawny coyote ran in front of my truck. He scurried frightened from the road, plunged into the water filled ditch. He must have been 100 years old in dog years, gray and crippled with arthritis, I could see it as he pulled himself out of the ditch nearly slipping back in. I don’t think of fear as a good motivator, but for him, then, fear worked. I felt a strange kinship with this lone coyote, I attached a part of myself to him and ran into the marsh.
I could not get the image of that old coyote out of my head until later in the week when I saw him dead on Tolt Hill road. I nearly cried, but there were caffeinated commuters behind me pressing me on and no turn-out in sight. I wanted to stop, I had to go.
In this moment, both crucial and absurd, I threw up my arms (not literally, I was driving) at the rapidity of my life, slower than most, especially the commuters behind me. The passing of time, as I flew past the coyote at a speed he could probably run as a youth, weighed heavy on me. And eventually a few tears fell.
When I got to work I yanked out summer: moldy marigolds, salvias, dahlias. Leaves fell in the sporadic gusts of wind. The summer party dresses are off the hermaphroditic garden. What is left they say are “the bones of the garden”. I find the thought rather macabre. For me the bones are the the mineral aspects the stones, the soil, the asphalt if need be. What I see in the bare trees, the hedges and shrubs is the musculature. There is something erotic in brawny trunks and the vertical posturing of conifers. The garden also looks “old” too, stripped as it were of its charms. But it is a beautiful old. Like the old coyote was beautiful, even his crippled escape seemed beautiful as I followed him into the marsh away from the work-a-day world, the bills and the chores and into the venerable soggy marsh. Not a garden at all but a graveyard of snags, impenetrable with browned grasses, bare branches, flood debris and peace.
Maybe the coyote wasn’t running out of fear but toward peace, off the asphalt into the subtle undefined world of wildness. Maybe all my running out of fear of not making ends meet or keeping up, or getting old is also more a running toward the subtle victory I think my father feels when he sits and watches the apple leaves grow.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


With all the shootings, unemployment, global warming and general cultural malaise it’s hard to find a scrap of good news these days.
But I’ve found some: Autumn will be more colorful in the future.
At least according to an article in the September/October issue of “Audobon”. I was glad to read that scientists are predicting that higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and subsequent warming will not only delay fall color, turning golden October into amber November, but also prolong and intensify the color.
Michael and I had noticed the cottonwoods have turned an intensely golden yellow this year . “Like the aspens in Colorado,” he said. Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) are very closely related to our native black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera subsp. trichocarpa). And despite frequent windstorms, frosts and heavy rains the leaves are finally, after a month, starting to fall.

Yellow as gas station signs. ( If you look closely you’ll see a rainbow in the background portentous of the 2 sunny days that followed.)

Yellow as taillights.

While I’m on the theme of golden yellow I’d like to promote an ornamental grass. My favorite to date. I am tired of the dramatic collapse of miscanthus in my borders. I actually had my helpers dig 5 big collapsed clumps out , while I took this photo feet away. Is it too much water, too little water? Too crowded? I give up. But I am sticking with purple moor grass ( Molina caerulea ‘Strahlenquelle’, in particular). Look at those ‘golden rays of sunshine’, in November, standing up to wind, rain, rabbit colonization, and juncos hanging tight to the stalks and plucking seed.

It’s not really time to start feeding the birds again. There’s plenty of foraging still available. Which makes me worry when the owl’s on the roof and the cat, who is delectably plump, is in the garden at night. But I have no problem with the owl de-populating the rabbits.

Remember those brightly died rabbit’s foot key chains you won at carnivals as a kid? I bet PETA put an end to that. I wonder what sort of portent a rabbit’s foot dropped by an owl has for the finder?

Sunday, November 8, 2009


The land we live on was logged like much of Western Washington. Near 90% I read recently. We have 2 old growth cedar stumps in the back of our property, that attest to the giants that once stood here. They are now “nurse stumps” and support nearly full sized cedar trees along with ferns , shrubs and perennials. Nature wastes nothing, especially time. Trees that fell 2 years ago in a tremendous wind storm are covered in a pelt of moss from which sprout young ferns, perennials and even little trees. I adore these trees as much as I adore the ghosts of the giants that once stood here, their knuckled stumps like monuments to fallen heros. I wonder where that wood went, if it exists in any form: a shake roof, a fence, a garden shed.
Sufi mystic Serif Catalkaya, who Michael and I had the good fortune to spend some time with, used to say that a tree was not useful until it became a chair. This riled the hackles of this wilderness adoring and protecting American. How can he say that? It was a metaphor I know for human nature, it needed to be sawn and hammered and sanded and varnished into something useful, something of service. Though I bristled at the metaphor I had to admit I have a lot of wooden chairs, a wooden floor and a wooden house. And a wood burning stove.
And lately we’re burning on a daily basis again. Alders that had dieD on our land, a cedar that a friend removed to get more light, and an old apple tree from a client’s garden.. It drives the damp out of our lives in this foggy valley. It gathers us all --2 dogs , 2 cats, 2 men -- into the living room each evening, where I nod off earlier and earlier each night. I like to blame it on the wood fire sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
Michael laughs, “ In this drafty old house?”
I don’t want to admit I ‘m getting older. A day of hard outdoor work this time of year wears me down a lot quicker than it used to. I must admit I’ve been a grumpy old man lately. Nothing seems to fit right, to work right. I hate these moods that come in with the darkening days of October and set up camp in November. They require a different diligence than the busy sun-filled days of summer. On the prompting of my yoga instructor, Kelley Rush of “Two Rivers Yoga”, I am doing a thankfulness practice. I have been introducing thankfulness into my small daily activities. When I make the morning pot of tea for Michael and I, I remember the woman at Pars Market who sold us the tea, I imagine the many hands that brought the tea to us. I think of the small delicate Ceylonese hands -that’s how I imagine them, because I dated a Ceylonese man who had the most brilliantly delicate nature and the smallest hands I had ever seen on a full grown man- that picked the green leaves of the tea tree (Camellia sinensis).
This probably seems like a lot of thinking and thanking for a cup of tea. Part of the magic of this process is that it all happens in a flash of thought, in a nano-second pause in the doing. This morning I took it a step further, thanked the living tree that captured the sunlight in Ceylon, where I bet it is like summer all the time. I even thanked the sun, which we rarely see these days, but which enters and energizes me like it were here in this cup of tea.
Then I returned to the fire. It’s a rainy cold Saturday, so we’re having a morning fire.
“What is fire? “ I asked Michael once. Thinking him more the scientist than I, I was sure he would have some good explanation. All I got was a dumb-founded look and, : “What kind of question is that?” He paused never feeling comfortable with not having an answer and then continued, “Fire is fire.” He didn’t know.
I have a stubborn 3-year-old sort of mind, So I decided to ask someone who might know, Google. This what I found:

"Fire is the rapid combination of oxygen with fuel in the presence of heat, typically characterized by flame, a body of incandescent gas that contains and sustains the reaction and emits light and heat."

It sort of takes the magic out of it. I like to think of wood as “bottled sunshine”. After all the trees are absorbing energy from sunlight - fire- and converting it to cellulose. (Do your own google search on photosynthesis). On a day like today when the sunlight is spongy and gray we can release, like the genii in the bottle, the summer sun in our living room.
When I think of the generosity expressed, I return to Sherif Catakaya’s metaphor of a tree becoming a chair. Of a tree becoming fire, becoming warmth.
Serif Catalkaya once asked us, “Do you think the sun is a ball of fire?”
We sat mute. Was this a trick question?
He pointed out the window on that particularly sunny spring day filled with blossoms and birds, “ It is the love that makes all life possible.”
In my parsimonious Lutheran up-bringing, sun-worshippers were the enemy, look how the Egyptians are portrayed in the Bible. In our modern parlance a sun-worshipper is some one who tans a lot, or vacations in Mexico. I,myself, cursed the sun this summer as it pelted us with hotter and hotter rays, sapping the very life out of my body. I don’t know how people live in deserts,or why so many religions were born there.
I am not a religious man, though I find religions fascinating. I do believe in one unitive principle, whether you want to call it God, or Allah, or Quantum Physics, is up to you. And though I believe this, these humongous concepts are bafflingly unapproachable to me. That’s when I become a pagan, or a least long for the time when everything was a deity, when the world was magical, alive.
I love thanking the tea leaves each day. And as I crouch next to the wood stove prodding a log into flame, as I release the suns energy from this seemingly inert piece of matter I feel I am involved in a ritual, coaxing a small god to offer comfort. Maybe I am a fire-worshipper, a Zoroastrian.
When we were in India a few years ago we went to Varanasi, where the Ganges turns north for a few miles. It is a high holy place for Hindus. Not far from where we watched a rather theatrical “Agni Pooja” in which both the sun and fire are worshipped, are the burning ghats. Hundreds of bodies are brought there each day for open air cremation. Michael and I watched as attendants prodded burning bodies with long poles coaxing flames into what seemed more like smoking and smoldering logs than bodies. Bodies are burned there continually, 24 hours a day, for thousands of years. As we watched body after body being burned a strange beautiful tranquility came over us as if all our earthly worries were being sent up in that smoke, like temple incense, like the plume from our chimney.

Though I know some of you would disagree I like to think of myself as a quiet, inward man.” A bump on a log” is what my mother used to call me when I would stay on the sofa all day reading books. So I developed the habit of going for walks very early. Slow, quite walks along the railroad tracks, or to Jacobus Park along Honey Creek in Milwaukee. Now I am lucky to have landed in a park-like setting where I can easily slip into boots and walk. I walked today around our little farmstead, petted the moss pelted logs that fell a few years ago, called it green flames in my head knowing the kinship between digestion and fire. I walked along the swollen river, once a loggers highway from the Cascades to the Sound. I was thankful it wasn’t flooding, and to lend poetic justice to the moment the sun broke through the clouds and ignited the golden poplars into flame.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


These past few cloudy rainy weeks have drained light from our days which shrink into blackness at either end. Black as blood pudding, which I have neither seen nor tasted, but clings to the roof of my mouth in vivid imagining. Black as the cat, like blindness. But, ah, what blindness does for the sense of smell.
I stood in the drive at the blackest moment of the day, 6:45 a.m. The porch light enlivened by a motion detector blinked on and off, then finally failed and plunged the dogs and I into blindness. The warm air became chaotic with information. First sleepy, then soapy, tidal, almost, as atomizing winds off the Pacific swept in hundreds of miles from the coast to this valley in the foothills. The new warmth after many cold days conjured spring, or a least the trust that spring will come.
A tannic bite driven out of the rattled Lombardy poplar leaves clips the end off October. Oh, oval October ends shattered and scattered in the gentle rot of leaves. How can this buttery rot smell so fresh? How can the bears’ footprints be made visible? How can the silent birds heaving sighs be heard through all this blackness but by scent?
Added in layers: still a pinkish rose; the chunky orange pumpkins just before decay; the folded warmth of the blanket still clinging to my hair as I stand in the dark garden asking how does birth eat away at death like worms, as worms? How does this degeneration access and disperse such a sweetness in such a blackness?
Where are my keys?
I fumble blindly in a darkness rich with information, except for the answer to the question:
Where are my keys?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I have been told I am a slow eater, almost derisively. I had to learn to eat slow, just like I had to learn to eat fast, to keep up with my ravenous brother. Or maybe it’s the pace of this country where fast and food are nearly inseparable. After asking my shiatsu therapist once if there was a shiatsu yoga I got an unexpected one word answer: “Chewing.”
I know I swallow way more than I chew, still I get berated for eating slowly. And still I’d like to eat even slower, even though a little guilt comes over me - like a white butterfly over the cabbages though I know they are bad I find them hard to kill because they’re beautiful, besides I also find them difficult to catch-, a guilt for holding back the other diners from moving on to dessert, a guilt for not having the rapacious nature our culture with it’s insistence on ever greater speed adores.
After returning from California where we were trying to prolong the pleasures of summer, the frost had done in the garden, blackened dahlias, glads, squash and amaranth - I was sure it was over. But now the warm rains have returned giving us a second, if rather wet, summer. The Rosa ‘Bonica’ is in bloom again. Not just a few flowers, but full trusses as pink as May. Actually the whole bush is covered with flowers.

I’ve preferred fall foliage to flowers for as long as I can remember. Is there something more masculine about it that appeals to me? Or is it that my favorite colors red, orange and gold are displayed in such quantity that it’s hard not to absolutely jubilant. Even the forsythia, which trumpeted a yellow so loud last March you couldn’t help but wake up, then fell into a rangy and somnambulant green all summer long, shows color again. Bloody maroons, coppery oranges. And it’s signature color yellow; just a reminder, or is it a promise of what’s to come?

The apples have all dropped and been eaten by the bears, except for the 3 or 4 bushels we have stored in the basement. The pumpkins and squash have been rushed from the rot inducing rains into the basement. The last cucumbers hang from their trellises, of little interest now.

Some of the first things I planted last spring are still standing in the garden though. The Red Bor kale, not the best for eating, becomes more ominously elegant as the rest of the garden dies around it. There are still at least 30 heads of cabbage. I’m hoping the January Kings actually make it through to January this year, not getting drown by flood waters.

This beauty is Bacalan de Rennes, a French heirloom cabbage that I tried for the first time this year. She seems too fragile in her powder pale coloring and ruffled edges to withstand a great deal of frost or rain, but I want to see if she can. Her taste is so delicate I have just pulled leaves off and munched them in the garden.
One of my clients has a plastic “stone” in her garden with a Gandhi quote “carved” into it. It reads: “There is more to life than increasing it’s speed.” I used to pride myself on my speed. One friend used to even refer to me as a hummingbird, for the shear velocity at which I spent my day. But something more beautiful is happening to me as I age; I’m slowing down.
I caught a cold this past week; it was a doozy. I coddled and befriended it, once I got over the missing work melodrama in my head and settled down on the sofa with the remote control and watched movie after movie [ “Death at a Funeral” was my favorite; I love black British humor.] I indulged myself in a stack of books. Katherine Mansfield short stories, one of my favorites from my youth, and the new Lydia Millet stories “Love in Infant Monkeys”. I finally read “The Golden Spruce” by John Vaillant, amazing. I flipped through “ Gourmet” ( bye-bye, boo-hoo), "Garden Design” (yawn) and “Harper’s” ( the Index!) I almost began to wonder if there was a way to prolong this illness, except my back started hurting from lying on the lumpy sofa too long.
And that damn cabbage white guilt kept flitting around singing, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Today a group of Seattle area garden bloggers (SAGBUTT) met at the Lake Wilderness Arboretum in Maple Valley. I was delightfully surprised by the this volunteer run arboretum. It was amazingly tidy and had many interesting plants. But what I found shocking was the number of hardy fuchsias. The Northwest Fuchsia Society is developing a display and test garden there. I was taken by dark color of "White Knight Amethyst".

The garden also contains the largest collection of western azaleas (Rhododendron occidentale) in the world, over 200 kinds. This west coast native was collected and propagated by the team of Smith and Mossman between 1966 and 1981. Though most were changing color and dropping leaves a few sported some idiosyncratic fall flowers.

Others let us know we were heading toward spring spring with their large flower buds.

A 'Northern Hi Lights' deciduous azalea in the nursery also starts to bloom out of season. I couldn't help but drop a few bucks at the arboretum's fine little nursery, open sporadically through out the year. I imagine I'll drop a few more next spring when I head down to see the western azaleas in bloom. And definitely in the future falls when the hardy fuchsias start blooming again.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I love orange groves, and cabernets. I love swimming outdoors in mid-October. I love pods of sea lions herding schools of sardines into which pelicans dive under the Golden Gate Bridge. I love to drive, and better yet to be driven. I love the dusty coastal smell of the peninsula south of San Francisco. Michael calls it “smoggy”, redolent with childhood memories both sweet and acrid. I, liberated by not having any childhood associations with this smell, find it “exotic” almost surreal. California is surreal. At least to me. How can someplace be so beautiful and grotesque at the same time? Like an attenuated super-model? So appealing and so repelling?
And yet the pleasures: a cabernet buzz, David-Hockney-braided-blue-shadows on the bottom of the pool, the Perfect Temperature. I guess I still have too much of the Wisconsinite in my flesh, in my very bones. “This won’t last.” Even know I can hear the slow silent movement of the tectonic plates. Yes, I cannot “chillax”, as the Californians say. Too much nordic inbreeding, I guess, making me the blond-haired, blue-eyed “monster of doing” that I am.

But, ah, the pool, the 80 degree lemon laden days.
Ah, the bloody cabernets. And lantana lolly-gaging over walls in non-stop bloom, and tibouchina flowering freely with no threat of frost. It seems like paradise. But maybe like Adam, Paradise isn’t enough for me. I am not enamored, like the Beach Boys with an “Endless Summer”. Still a wistfulness came over me like an 19th century consumption when we left California last Sunday. We were stepping out of our delusion that summer wasn’t over, and into the “dark” north. Frost had taken the dahlias, and basil and field grown tomatoes (the green house tomatoes are still going), while we were enjoying ourselves in that place that always feels more foreign to me than India. India actually felt strangely like home when I visited it two years ago.
I welcome the clouds and the rain. As the clerk at the Redmond gas station said, “We’ve had a good run; we can’t complain.” I wanted to complain, but I realized I love change. I voted for change. Maybe I also love the end of summer, fearlessly love the wistful melancholic celebration that is Fall, flushed orange moving toward skeletal. I am not afraid of the dark, looming tide-like and threatening on either end of the shrinking day. Not as afraid as I am of California, don’t ask me why.

The view from the tower of the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to the newly planted living roof of the California Academy of Sciences takes on a surrealistic feel, distorted by long evening shadows, an eagle's perspective, mirrored glass and a cabernet hang-over.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Fuchsia speciosa is a reluctant shrub in the Northwest, where it behaves more like a hardy perennial dying to the ground each year and returning from the roots. After our hard winter last year and without a protective mulch -- I like to call my forgetfulness “experimentation”-- I was surprised to see it return in late spring. And return it did, bigger and better than ever.

Fuchsia speciosa is a reluctant bloomer here. I barely begins to bloom before the cold sets in and shuts it down. But this year the prolonged summer is just what it wants. Warm sunny days and cool nights are following us all the way into October. It’s flowering in orangey abandon like never before.
I am not usually this patient with a plant. But as I have said I have a weakness for fuchsias. If it were any other plant I might have ripped it out by now.
I’m glad I didn’t.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I'm not a vegetarian, but I couldn't resist kissing this cabbage. I grew 12 different types of cabbage this year, which amounted to over 120 heads. This one, "Perfection Drumhead Savoy" an heirloom from 1888, was by far the biggest. It has a bigger head than I do.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


One of my clients said this week, " I'll take 10 months of September, one of August, and one of December, just for Christmas." I couldn't agree with him more. Here in the Pacific Northwest September is the best month, yet I can't put aside my love of the "ah" months.
I love August (forgive my pronunciation) which finally offers some respite from the frenzy that started in April.
I really love October, the only "O" month; it lends such a lovely curve to the year. The morning and evening chill, closing the bright day in damp brackets, are welcome, begging for a few extra minutes in bed, or soup making at the end of the day.

The spectral presence of powdery mildew moves into the garden stealthy as fog. It surprises me every year, though it is as reliable as leaf drop.

This swelling and welted "Goosebumps" turns an orange as oval as October.

Monday, September 28, 2009


According to color theorists blue is the least appetizing color. That’s not hard to swallow considering there are so few blue foods. When I think of food I think of so many other colors.
Red comes to mind first: a bloody rare steak, bitter radicchio, hot radishes.
Green certainly follows: the humbleness of peas; the reliable leaves: lettuce, chard, kale arugula, et al; unripe fruits, cucumbers, beans, okra and peppers.
White is unavoidable: potatoes, bread, sugar.
As is brown: potatoes, bread, sugar.
But blue foods are few, except for the fashionably anti-oxidant rich blueberry.
Blue seems mostly found in fruits:

“Purple” tomatillos have a ghostly blueness to their beauty.

The waxing bloom on grapes makes them also blue.

Or wild berries like our native service berry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

But what about blue leaves?

Kale and cabbage have a tendency towards blueness, I say a tendency because the blueness is simmered down to a silence within the green. Hardly seen at all.

And broccoli foliage is a dewy dawn blue.

The blue leaves of the ornamental blueberry ‘Sunshine Blue’. Cultivated for berry production it’s beautiful ever-”blue” foliage and continual berry production make it a poor candidate for commercial berry fields. But these assets make it a perfect plant for the home gardener, who is looking for an evergreen shrub and a place to stop and nibble while weeding.

The blue flower of radicchio.

And the red leaves of a blueberry.

If you're still hungry for the blues visit Tobago where each year they host a Blue Food Festival, featuring the grayish blue roots of taro.