Sunday, March 29, 2009


Which smells yellower to you, lemons or urine?
Sulfur or bananas?
Turmeric or rubber duckies?
It’s yellow time, here at the farm, daffodils and forsythia crown the front of the house. But both are so strangely odorless. The daffs do have a scent, a hidden flat rather musky scent, an unusual counterpoint to their youthful bright faces. The yellow polleny powder puffs of the male willows along the road are fragrant-less, too. I used to love the gray pelted pre-catkins of willows, the pussies, but now it is this polleny explosion I adore. The trees look dusted with sulfur, but are scentless too. It's as if yellow is enough. Or too much, after producing such a solar color the flowers have exhausted their resources with nothing left to spend on fragrance.
Of course there is the witch hazel, now finished, the earliest yellow, the first fragrance of spring out on the farm, even if it blooms in winter. Maybe the clean and wakeful fragrance is made possible by thrifty use of petals,those skinny strips of yellow hardly need any energy at all, accept to be rolled up each night as the temperatures drop. We also have the early blooming winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) with it’s perfect little “artificial” flowers, a yellow that Crayola would aspire to, but shamefully scentless not worthy of the name Jasmine.
Now I prefer lemony over urine-y. Actually I prefer lemony over chocolatey. Lemon meringue pie over chocolate cake. Lemon Heads over Tootsie Rolls. Lemonade, in winter, over hot chocolate. Brightness over darkness. Though I’ve never paired lemon and chocolate ( has anyone? ) I love the blend of bright and dark, if not in flavors at least in fragrance.
One spring flower that delivers both yellow and fragrance, bright and dark, lemon and urine, and musk, is the northwest native skunk cabbage ( Lysichiton americanus), or swamp lantern, a name I prefer for this glowing yellow calla lily relative. I find them neither skunky nor cabbagey. As the the back of our property slowly sinks back into the swamp you can find this gorgeous early bloomer cracking it’s way out of the saturated muck and matt of dead grasses. It’s reptilian, and no matter how many springs I’ve spent in the Northwest it still seems surprisingly exotic to me.
These large “flowers” are actually a 2 part inflorescence common to the arum family (Araceae) which includes Jack-in-the-pulpit, calla lilies, and many tropical house plants like philodendron and peace lily. The flowers, female and male appear like small petal-less nubs on the club-like spadix which is hooded by the leaf-like spathe. The spathe of our swamp lantern is very yellow and waxy and seems to act as a protective shield for the flowers against spring rains, it may also act as a “catcher’s mitt” keeping the flies and beetles it attracts with it’s less than floral scent trapped until they get their job done. But for humans it is the yellow beyond yellow, especially in the dead zones of swamps this time of year, that attracts. Northwest botanist Arthur Kruckeberg recommends keeping a distance, though he finds the odor not the least bit offensive. I, on the other hand, almost ritualistically bow down to the swamp lantern. Stick my nose in where no nose often goes and get a big whiff of the yellowest odor I know.
I know the sweet plum blossoms made legendary by chinese poets, and the penetrating honey of daphne so coveted by gardeners here, are what we like to think of as " The Fragrance of Spring". But to me there is nothing yellower than the lemony sharpness, forbidden urine, eggy sulfur,banana-happiness, bitter turmeric and rubber-ducky-clean scent of swamp lanterns, as complex as life itself, telling me spring is here.

Take a whiff.

Monday, March 23, 2009


You have probably been asked the tricky question: “ Is the glass half empty of half full?” Your answer is suppose to indicate whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. There was no room for my answer. “Both.”
It is all relative. If the glass was empty and you filled it half way then it is half full. If the glass was full of water and you drank half of it it would be half empty.
Does my answer to this question, making me neither an optimist nor a pessimist, make me a realist, or just confused?
I was in The UW Bookstore the other day. A great bookstore ( remember bookstores?). I saw a book about Helen Mirren, one of my favorite actresses. I didn’t pick it up but looked at it where it stood on the “ Employee’s Picks” shelf. I can not remember the title, nor the subtitle though it went something like this: “ The story of a Woman who lives her life to the Full”. I myself have been battling my own life’s “fullness”. Way to busy. Way to many projects lingering around the edges, too many places to go. Now I don’t want to sound like a complainer, I would certainly rather be handed a full glass than an empty one. Maybe it’s a mid-life thing making me wonder if I’m half empty or half full. Just as we admire those who live “life to the full”, we ceratinly , or at least some of us, admire those who are empty, like the glowing example of beautiful emptiness Shodo Harada Roshi, a japanese zen master who visits the Northwest frequently. I bet he likes a full cup of tea, just like Helen Mirren needs her some empty moments in her full schedule.
Just a few days ago we celebrated, along with the Persians whose new year it is, the first day of spring. Nothing speaks of half empty and half full like the equinoxes do. The days and nights are equal, briefly. Already today 3 days after the equinox the days are already longer, the nights shorter. On the spring equinox I looked at the garden. I was nearly to the end of my winter clean up, nearly ready for spring. I’m running a little behind this year, but so is spring, winter lingers around though officially banished. The garden feels empty but only half so. I’ve cleared space for all the new growth that will certainly be coming, we are on the optimistic side of the question watching the garden fill. Even in these chilly temperatures daffodils open and pulmonarias uncurl their inflorescences. Buds swell on the trees I pruned, and soon birds and blossoms, then leaves will fill the gaps I made.
In the garden it is not a question of optimism or pessimism, empty or full. It is the filling up and emptying out. It is the flux that is the answer. From bare branches to shady canopy, from hidden bulbs to tulips. From petal drop to red apples. Here we go.
I have a friend who lived in Hawaii. I was envious of his life in ‘Paradise’. He said he could never get used to the strange foliage and the fact that everything was so full all the time. We share nordic ancestry, so I understood what he said and wondered how much I would miss the change of the seasons the emptiness of winter being replaced by the filling of spring.
I am happy to have an empty glass in front of me, only an empty glass can be filled. I am happy to be sitting in the empty garden, knowing it will fill. I guess I’m an optimist after all.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I was finally raking up some piles of leaves that I used to protect plants in the nursery, when I discovered this peony desperately hungry for light. The young leaves became stunning tropical flowers, which belies our cold weather.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


We just passed the last full moon of Winter. Holi to the Hindus. The nights were bright and clear, preternaturally clear. One can imagine the hindu bonfires. So much light even at night, like our winter holidays.
And in the morning, because I wake early, I saw a golden moon sinking into the trees on the top of the ridge. The lawn had absorbed the stars over night, the branches were lacquered with moon white ice.
“ Like diamonds,” my mother would have said, though she never owned a diamond. Never cared to, I imagine. Her tastes are simple, clean as moonlight. Though her hands are often dirty from gardening.
After the moon slipped behind the ridge, then the horizon, cold white moonishness lingered on the lawn as frost, until the rising sun made them ignite with light, then melted them.
I started gardening late today, happy not to need diamonds.
Even happier that they melted.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Islands run in chains, archipelagos, cluster along a coast like chicks around a hen. Look at the Aleutians or the Tuscan Archipelago.There is a chain of island gardens in my life. Last fall it was il orto dei semplici elbano in Italy, this past winter our little farm in Carnation became islandized 3 times by flood waters. This past week I added another island garden to this chain.
My friend, and writer, Abigail Carter [ see link to her site in side bar] bought the Betty MacDonald house on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound. Betty MacDonald, most famous for The Egg and I, and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books lived there from 1942 to 1955. She wrote most of her books there. When she wrote the Egg and I there were only 2 small cabins on the site. With the money she made from selling the book rights to Hollywood she expanded the small cabin into a beautiful house. Nestled into a steep bluff above Puget Sound, it is the perfect place for a writer, secluded but looking out, intimate, but with a grand view.
The garden helps create this double aspect. Over the years the trees and shrubs have grown out form the bluff above the house and enfolded it in shade. This shady garden composed of old trees and shrubs, some panted by Betty herself, has a lush carpet of native sword ferns and invasive english ivy. Below the house the plants have been kept in check to keep the magnificent view of the Sound and Mount Rainier open. Gardens on steep sights like this are invariably neglected. Not only is the nearly vertical bluff hard to work, but removal of invasives like himalayan blackberries would expose the soil to rain and erosion. So what makes up Abby’s garden is predominantly the terraces above and around the house.
I jumped at the chance when she asked me to help her with the garden. I transform from a gardener to an archeologist in old gardens. It becomes a process of discovery, more than creation. I spent most of the day poking holes in the garden. Eliminating old branches and ivy, exposing rocks and letting light into corners, dark too long. I took a mental inventory of the plants. Finding the garden in the garden I planned what to do next. The weather was beautiful and though I worked rapidly I realized this would be a slow process.
Luckily Abby is in no rush. Though the neglect winds up a archaeological gardener like me, to most the wildly carefree grounds makes them slow down, turn inward, or outward into the view. This double aspect brings a sense of wholeness to the mind, a sense of healing. Appropriately Abby donates this space for healing retreats hosted by the Seattle Healing Center. She also offers it for summer rentals, you can contact her through her website if you’re interested.

This huge empress tree slithering out from the bluff like a huge anaconda hungry for light, was planted by Betty in the 1940's.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


I had been jettisoned away from the faux-spring of the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, my mind still filled with robiny imaginings. It feels like more than a week ago that the snow started to fall as I landed in Minneapolis. I transfered planes and took off ahead of the front. I had only only out raced the storm by a few hours, shortly after I landed in Milwaukee the snow flew in.
I hadn’t dressed for the weather.
I packed for a funeral. The funeral of my mother’s sister, my Aunt Nancy. Though the snow would have shut down the Pacific Northwest, Wisconsin kept moving, sluggishly kept moving. People came from all over the state, and the country to pay their last respects to this loving woman.
It was a flowery funeral. Peach roses, long-stemmed snapdragons reaching toward heaven, lilies, carnations, more roses and glads. It was a mini garden show. Were we trying to recreate the garden from which she sprang, to which she returned with our floral offerings?
But even with all this floral splendor something was missing, at least in my mind.
My Aunt Nancy loved nasturtiums. But where do you find nasturtiums in February, when 8 inches of snow is falling, not even a bud swelling on the trees. I had nasturtiums in my heart though, orangey-bright and peppery. Cheerful, optimistic.
An optimistic cousin said to me, “The robins will be back soon,” though she stood before a window filled with nothing but white
I smiled because I found it hard to imagine robins at that moment. Even the hardy chick-a-dees and the rascally blue jays were hidden that day. But like everyone I like to look out from pain, away from the loss toward the day the pain will stop, the snow will stop and the first robin will hop across the lawn.

Just as quickly as I was dropped back into wintery Wisconsin --real winter, not this wimpy indecisive winter of the Northwest-- I was jettisoned back to the Northwest, my family painfully far behind. I was back to my winter garden tasks within 12 hours. The air was sweetly dirty. Floral fragrances jumped forward. Here February is like spring there. Just the day before I lied on my brother’s sofa staring out the plate glass window at a white world, now I tugged at the first weeds of the year. Or are they the last of the past year?

Here everything is green, blooming has begun.

But we weren’t done.

It snowed on Thursday.
A brisk warmish friendly snow. Not enough to stop traffic, even here, but enough to stop gardening. So I stayed home to organize my library. I could have gotten something done that needed doing , but snow days are like holidays. I knew I had to fight the desire to nap at 10 a.m. So I gave myself the fun little project of reorganizing my library, which mostly involved paging through books that have been sleeping on the shelf for years.
By Friday the snow had melted. I was back to gardening. Midday a flock of robins landed on the lawn. 30 or more. As many as the tasks still on my winter gardening list. A list that starts with “ March,” followed by a colon, and then “ patience”. This now seems easy when I think of all those years growing up in Wisconsin, growing up in winter waiting for the first robin.
And Nasturtiums.

The nearly white nasturtium 'Milkmaid'