Friday, December 24, 2010


Not so long ago, when I was beginning my career as an estate gardener here in the Northwest. I got a job working in a white garden. Every rose, phlox, dogwood, pieris, wisteria and daffodil was white. This was during a time when I hated white. Who knows why?
In retrospect I wish I had been more appreciative. The garden was designed by a locally prominent landscape architect, and was really quite lovely. But when you’re the guy whose pulling shot weed (Cardamine hirsuta)—a white flowered plant by the way—all day and beating back gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides) you start craving a little color in your day. I blamed the limited color palette, and the formalist design for my boredom. I was still a young anxious gardener and had not learned to calm my mind for 8 hours of weeding.
But the whole time I was learning something, subliminally.
Now landscape architects are not known for there smart use of plants. And the guy who design that garden was no different. This lovely formalist garden was carved into a bit of Northwest woods and the plants he chose were all wrong. In the shady enclosed garden rooms the phlox suffered terribly from powdery mildew, but instead of reveling in the whiteness of it, like a baker’s dusty apron, my client required me to pick each infected leaf of the plant. Some years there were only flowers left on 3 foot stalks. The ‘Iceberg’ roses, if they had any leaves left on them after plucking all the black spot off, eventually succumbed to the mildew, too. I tried to talk to my client about changing these plants out for something more appropriate, but she paid a lot of money for that garden and wanted it to be as planned. Now, I’ve been called stubborn more than once—luckily mostly by people who love me—but the rigidity of my client made this work feel like slavery. Of course it wasn’t. I was getting paid and for 3 years I religiously picked mildewed leaves, deadheaded browning flowers on the ‘Nuccio’s Gem’ camellias and beat back gooseneck loosestrife. But I also met some of my favorite plants for the first time: Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Cardamine trifolia—a close relative of shot weed— and Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis.
Maybe it’s surrender, like the white flag. Maybe it’s maturity. Or a slowly acquired sophistication. Over the years since I worked in that all white garden I have added, one after another, white flowered plants to my palette. Some of them I absolutely love, can’t be without. Since it’s that time of year for singing, or writing, about favorite things, like “silver white winters that melt into spring”, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite white flowered plants.

Crocus ‘Jeanne d. Arc’

Lily of the Valley
(Convallaria majalis)

Regal Lily
(Lilium regale)

White Clary Sage
(Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica ‘Alba’)

Flowering Cherry
Prunus serrulata ‘Mt. Fuji’

English Daisy
(Bellis perennis)

Zinnia ‘Polar Bear’

(Ammi Majus)

Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Last week it flooded in the valley.
A rather benign flood compared to the monster that hit us in January of 2009. This flood would have made most people nervous, but I was strangely comfortable with it. We were ready, everything was out of harm’s way. We blockaded the basement with boards, plastic and sandbags. With a naked Christmas tree in the house and plenty of food, we had dug the last of the potatoes, carrots and beets the week before, we were ready to be trapped for a day or two.
Knowing that everything was in order, it was easy to go into the deep sense of awe that a flood inspires, to be comfortable with 3 feet of water rushing across our property, to be thrown back in geologic time to when this valley was a Lake. And to be reminded how temporal everything is from the flood itself rushing by in a few days to the giant lake that took millennia to drain.
Michael and I had a chance to try out our new canoe. We paddled back to the unnamed lake hidden in the brushy marsh behind our house. It is nearly impossible to reach during the dry season, being so densely overgrown with salmon berry, willow and spiraea. With the high water we slid across the tops of it all, snagging only occasionally. The sun came out as it always does during a flood, after the horrific rains have passed. We skidded across big white clouds reflected in the murky water. We bushwhacked afloat down to the beaver pond and we flew out to the road, then paddled our way home and on to the half submerged drive. We agreed the canoe was a smart purchase, a good fit, right comfortable.
But one thing will never be comfortable: the quality of the water. The gray sludgy swill belches diesel fumes and septic farts as it passes. It is not pretty water. It is downright gruesome. If you fell in you’d be grateful for the hypothermia that took your life quickly. The infections one could get from this opaque soup! Horrifying!

I like water when it’s brisk and sassy. Jumping down a mountain, slapping rocks; spitting, shouting and singing like a bunch of reckless teenagers. It’s ebullience charms. It’s power crowned with snow white froth, like flocking happy gulls. I could go on metaphorically for pages. It’s so alive and enlivening.
They say water kicked up like this creates an abundance of positive ions in the surrounding atmosphere. When we inhale them they produce biochemical reactions that increase the level of the mood chemical serotonin, which helps alleviate depression, relieves stress and boosts day time energy. It is a tonic I take as often as possible, living on the western edge of the Cascade Mountain Range. It’s better than any supplement and just about as good as sunshine, which is scarce right now.

But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the rhythmic spanking the Pacific gives the western edge of the continent. Nothing compares to the sea foam, salt spray, the briny fishy stink of the beach. And the seemingly limitless expanse of water before you.
This is where those damned flood waters head, out to sea.
Leaving us to slosh through the muck and mire here in the valley, not a positive ion in sight.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


I live in a white house. Well, actually I live in a piebald house. Michael and I want to change the color. The splotchy evidence covers the north side like a crazy quilt. Our inability to decide, or was it to agree, on a color lead right into the rainy season. Too late to paint now.
I grew up in a white house, that never changed color. That post-war Cape-Cod-esque house was sided with aluminum. “We never need to paint,” was my mother’s victory cry when she bought the house. Of course years later my step-father went after it with a hose and a brush. Not to change it but to keep it white.
White happens to be the most popular paint color in America, both for interiors and exteriors. Most paint companies have a wider range of whites than any other color. There are even paint companies that produce only white paints. So there are alot of white houses out there.White houses are by far not my favorite. I seems ironic, or at least odd, that I keep landing in white houses. Of course the odds are good.
Back when I was living in that white house on 65th Street in Milwaukee, I took a trip with a school group to our nation’s capital. Washington, D.C., as you know is the home of the most famous white house, the White House. It is also home to innumerable other white buildings. Mostly neoclassical behemoths paying tribute to the birth place of Democracy, Greece. As a 13 year old I had no ideas about politics, history or government. These bone white structures left me cold. I was more interested in the dinosaur bones in the Smithsonian.
Twenty years later I travelled to Greece. I was much more taken with the Byzantine churches and monasteries than the tumbled down Classical World. When I found out that the Acropolis was closed due to strikes, it didn’t mar my visit to Athens at all. I even went to the movies, an American movie, when I was there. Yet each day when I left my hotel I could see the Acropolis between some high rise apartments. Its looming appearance from all over town became enough. Enough all ready. Every where little replicas of the Parthenon for sale, metal, marble and resin replicas. Finally, on my last day in town, when I was in the Agora sampling yet another feta (a very white cheese, I might add) I heard some tourists talking. The acropolis was open. Only for 4 hours that afternoon. No explanation. I was spending way to long in Athens according to the guide books. I was trying not to be a tourist. Sitting in little neighborhood parks just day dreaming. But suddenly I wanted to get caught up in the fury. I ran to the bus, that took me to the base of the hill on which this Unesco World Heritage site stood. I had been being teased and acting disinterested ever since I arrived in Athens. Now that access was granted I was running.
It was late October, I don’t know if the benign weather, the late day sun or the lack of tourists were all that were at play, but the Acropolis was luminous.
I was floored.
It was not only monumental but sublime. All the architecture that had echoed off of it over the millennia seemed a sham. I imagined how celestial this place must have seemed with the wise and newly democratic Greeks wandering about in their seamless white draperies. But wait, that brilliant marble was painted. Garishly so. One scientist even speculates the Parthenon was painted red, white and blue. But at the time none of that knowledge marred the few hours I got to spend in total white rapture.
I was not so lucky when I travelled to India twenty years after that. The day I was going to catch the train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, that other monument to white architecture, I came down with a severe case of amoebic dysentery. I barely left my room , let alone the compound of the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

The only white building I would see for that week was this small mosque outside my door. Not the most splendid mosque in the Nizamuddin ghetto of New Delhi it may seem strange the impact it had on me. But it became my clock and calendar, even a barometer, as it’s white dome changed color from sunrise to sunset, carried the shadows of clouds or was plunged into darkness when the electricity was shut off in the neighborhood each night. It became the moon in the night, full with whatever ambient light it could catch. Since I was sleepless I would sit on a little chair outside my door, and in a dehydrated revery watch it rise from the darkness.

White is a very common color for houses of worship as well as homes. Think of the white chapels cluttering the American countryside. In Playa del Carmen, Mexico the steeple of this church raised our eyes from the bubbling colorful commerce of that tourist town, and toward the blue sky. That’s why we came so far south in February after all. Not to shop.

The Shakers did not shrink from painting buildings red, especially workshops and barns. But their dormitories and meeting houses were always a puritanical white. This meeting hall in New Lebanon, New York has the same moon-ascending quality as the little mosque outside my room in Delhi.

I took this picture from the top of the leaning tower on a winter afternoon in Pisa, looking west over the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta. This cathedral; along with the other buildings of the Campo dei Miracoli, can blush like a school girl at sunset, but was sullen and ashen as a corpse under the low gray skies of March.

Augustine Hope, the co-author of The Color Compendium writes about the last century, “ I don’t think another century has its own color, but this one does. And that is white. White before this century was a luxury.” When I think of all the refridgerators, not to mention the billion or so other appliances, I can agree, the 20th century is white.White is modern and no one knew that better than the Bauhaus Group. They ushered in a rage for all things white in the early 30s. Maybe a reaction to the gloomy Great Depression? In this apartment house in Berlin the flatness of the white facade and the serious symmetry breaks into joy with the brightly colored door and windows. Once again white responding to its surrounding.

The interior of the entrance hall of the new wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum, not far from that 65th Street house where I grew up. This was Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava’s first American project. Bauhaus member Johannes Itten said “form and color are one”, as far as the architecture of Calatrava is concerned I couldn’t agree more. His elegant air born buildings would look foolish in any thing but white.

The Marie-Elisabeth-Lueders-Haus, part of the modern government complex at the center of the reunified Berlin though modern in form has the beauty of ancient marble. The concrete surfaces were coated with a multifunctional scumble, a glaze for concrete and stone.

But all white buildings are not monuments, holy places or government building. More often they are homes. This small white house was built by my step-father and his father back in the 40s. I now belongs to my sister and I can’t imagine it being anything but white.

Even this humble little Mayan hut in Ekbalam, Mexico has a dignifying coat of white paint. Or maybe it’s just a practical heat deflecting coat of white paint.

Then there is home-sweet-home, white as sugar. Where I sleep and eat.
Where I write from.
Where the only monument, the only holy site, the only governance comes from a pale blue sky smeared with white clouds.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The first snow flakes of the season appeared last week. Graphic snowflakes on the little weather calendar in the newspaper foreshadowing a cold front, and yes, snow, on the way. Everyone was excited. If I, like mother says, had a nickel for every time I heard the word “snow’ I could have quit working by this week. Instead I’m laid-off by snow. Not the wordy, chattery snow that spews from everyone’s lips when the forecasters start mentioning snow, but actual rain-turned-into-ice-crystals snow.
Just days ago I made a little square of my left forefinger and thumb, and right forefinger and thumb. I looked through it like a photographer at a portion of the garden that could have been spring. I framed a sasanqua camellia, an apple tree still full of green leaves, fuchsias and one erratic rhododendron covered in pink flowers. There was not a hint of Fall’s changing leaves or decay. It was a scene as fresh as May. But it was November 17th.
Fall can be that way here. Langourous. Not in a hot tropical way, but in a confusing abundance of color from the changing leaves and the newly blooming flowers. From temperatures which don’t quite reach freezing and yet stay warm enough to keep dahlias in bloom. Not to mention fuchsias, camellias and rhododendrons. And provide cucumbers and zucchini into November. I find myself rather flummoxed during these months. Do I cut back the dahlias when they’re still half-heartedly blooming? Do I let all the nasturtium seedlings that are popping up in abundance and growing with Spring-like vigor go until they freeze? Or get the work over with now? Can I validate staying in and reading all day on a Saturday which is only cloudy and 55 degrees?
So last week when I was thinking it wouldn’t snow, “Just more meteorological exaggerating,” I couldn’t help but wish it would snow.
You see, I love snow. The more the merrier. I love a city muffled, tongue-tied. Traffic at a stand still. These snowy days are the real holidays, no Labor Day Blow-out Sales, no New Year’s Eve Galas, or Easter strolls through the Arboretum, en masse. I do feel sorry for the people who collide, spin-out and slide off icy roads. It’s no fun. But what does it hurt if everything shuts down once in a while?
But more than anything I love a world swathed in white.
A few years ago, as a Christmas present to myself, I went to see the Vedic Astrologer Dennis Flaherty. I am a sceptic. So I let astrologers go on without giving any cues. Let them damn or vindicate themselves. I was quite surprised how precisely accurate he was. By the end of my session Mr. Flaherty was vindicated. And I had a new color: white.
Now, I’ve never been a big fan of white. To me it’s not even a color. But the insightful astrologer insisted it was my color, when he saw a puzzled look creep on to my face. If he would have said red or yellow, I would have agreed whole-heartedly. If he had said green or blue I would have assented. But white? I had no feeling for white. It rouses neither anger nor happiness; neither comfort nor excitement in me. Maybe he wasn’t such a great astrologer after all.
But I kept what he said in a secret part of my heart.
Why not white?
I’m a gardener and, like Pig Pen, a perpetual cloud of needles, leaves, dirt and rocks- yes, once I took off my shoes at a friends house and a rock fell out- follow me everywhere I go. White surfaces, white clothes are my nemesis.
But that’s not why I don’t like white.
It’s been three years since Dennis Flaherty told me my color was white. I’ve been looking askance at white ever since. Asking white to prove itself.
I guess I’ve always been intimidated by the imperiousness of white. Wedding dresses. The white-glove-tests. Porcelain. Jock socks. Snow White ( the Disney Classic). Ambulances. Clapboard churches. Linens. The absolute perfection of a hen’s egg ( I usually buy brown ones).
The White Album.
The blank page.
So lately I’ve been trying to create a blank space for myself to re-address white.
Trying to look at the white that I like instead of white that scares me. It began with those first graphic snowflakes last week. They reminded me how much I love snow and, well, snow is white.
So I began a list:
Sugar cubes.
Madonna lillies.
Bone china.
Swans; mute, trumpeter and whistling swans.
Paper bark birches, especially Betula papyrifera and B. utilis jacquemontii.
Ghost brambles (Rubus lasiostylus hubeiensis)
And, snow, even when it covers the beautiful golden-orange decline of fall.

Monday, November 15, 2010


The other day Nora Ephron was on NPR, touting her new book I Remember Nothing. The host asked her what her advice was for people who were aging, since her book was about the aging process.
She replied ( I am paraphrasing wildly here) that you should do what you want now. Don’t put things off, or keep overly busy with things you don’t really like to do. She used a friend dying of throat cancer as an example. This woman could not eat anymore and she regretted not eating enough hot dogs in her life.
Now I don’t want to eat more hot dogs and I don’t have terminal cancer and by all life expectancy charts I’ve got a ways to go. But there was some truly practical wisdom in what she has to say. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about practical wisdom, way too late into life. So that I’m melting in that direction is certainly a sign of my aging. So I gave the flip-file of my mind a whirl and began looking for those things I’ve been putting off. What do I want of the rest of my life?
More travel?
More writing?
More work? More friends? More fun? More sex? More books? More plants?
More time;more sleep, more food; more...?
More. More. More. I was beginning to sound like Ronald Reagan.
Do I really want more out of my life? Do I really want to squeeze harder and see if I can get one more drop or two out of this stone?
I know Mies van der Rohe’s words “Less is more” have been quoted to death. Do I really want to do some conversion mathematics with my life and get more out of less? We’re back to that squeezing again. I’ll save that for yoga class and orange juice.
Since I was driving when Ms. Ephron prompted this rash of thought about the rest of my life--I never would have expected it of her-- I really didn’t stay very focused. There where intersections to maneuver, cops to slow down for and one wildly erratic dog bouncing in and out of traffic as if it were one of the pack.
Maybe I didn’t want to think about the rest of my life just then. Too loaded.
And then just as the flip-file fingering stopped I realized all I really wanted was to appreciate what I had. Really and truly. And then all the rest would fall into place, I am sure.
But that’s getting harder every day. With my cup running over things are getting awfully messy around here. It’s hard to know what to appreciate or how.
When I was a bartender in Cologne, Germany I had that over the top American sense of service that the Germans don’t know how to appreciate. Its just not in their make up. “Just give me the beer, and cut the friendly chatter.” Once I did that my job got a lot easier and, yes, my tips went up. What was harder to get was the filling of a glass. In Cologne the regional beer Koelsch is served in a thin cylindrical glass that is marked a few millimeters from the top with a small white line and the number 0,2 l. Like a test tube in a laboratory. Most Germans didn’t like when I broke this boundary, which I saw as being generous. “Its too full I’m going to spill it.” Besides the beer was suppose to end at that line and the foam begin. It was an exacting art which I eventually became very good at.
I sure don’t want to draw a line on my the glass of my life, or cup as the case may be. I’m not that exacting, and I actually like a half empty glass once in a while as much as I like the messy overwhelmed feeling of over flowing.
I like picking our last zucchini on November 14th. The garden just won’t quit, which is the kind of overflowing I like. But I also don’t know if I want to head to the other side with a suitcase so full its bursting at the seams. Or have to run out to the garbage can more than once a week, or have recycle bins full of junk mail, or try to remember what I have to do for the week. I’m a chronic list maker at this point. I know this all sounds like complaining but I think that is part of this sorting out process. If I’m complaining about something is it something I really want in my life? Is it something I want to put the effort into appreciating? Or just get rid of?
Well, I can’t, for example, stop taking out the garbage. That’s one of the things in life where you just don’t want any overflowing going on. So what do I do? Stop making garbage? That certainly is an option. And I try to re-duce, re-use , re-cycle as much as possible, but that takes time too. So now, this is still in the experimental phase, I try to make the trip to the garbage can an adventure, a little hike through a portion of this magnificent world. I listen for birds, smell the air, gaze off a the mountains. Yes, I am very fortunate to have mountain views on the way to the garbage can.
Then suddenly I am appreciating something that I don’t necessarily like to do.
Now if I can spread this appreciation over everything, like a great blanket of sparkling snow...
Its in the experimental phase, as I said.
But it seems to be working, because now I even appreciate Nora Ephron.
Thanks for the advice.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I keep getting letters from Garden Design warning me to renew. Each letter over the weeks escalates in urgency and makes grander and more generous offers. I think I’m up to 3 years for the price of one by now. No matter how they plead, whether with fear tactics, or enticements I can’t help but refuse.
Not that I don’t find Garden Design a beautiful magazine full of inspiration. I just have so many other things to read. “Read” is the operative word here. I don’t read Garden Design. I flip through. I pause here and there, even at ads. I read a caption, a head line...
Okay, I read Garden Design. I even read a whole article in the November/ December issue. “Your last issue.” Again!?
The article, “Jack Frost: Master Gardener”, was written by Valerie Easton a local garden columnist and author. I feel the same sort of triumph that Val feels when she wrote: “Only after a killing frost puts the garden decidedly to bed do I have guilt-free time to read a novel or go to the movies.”
Well, frost of any kind has been late in coming this year, unnervingly so. Usually out here in the valley we have a killing frost by mid-October long before Seattle and the rest of the Puget Sound Basin. I look forward to that frost exactly for the reason Ms. Easton states. I want to be able to turn my back on the garden guiltlessly.
I am always looking for reasons to snub the garden, or in more enlightened moments “let it go”, even in spring and summer. But it’s hard to let go when the weather isn’t cooperating. In August I gave up on ever seeing cucumbers, the summer was so cool they barely came into bloom. But last Friday firmly Fall and well into November I picked our last cucumber. we do not live in Mexico you understand, or even southern California. We’re only a little over 100 miles form the Canadian border.
Mid-week when the temperatures reached upward toward the mid-70s making bulb planting a delight I was feeling a bit anxious about where this was all going. The weekend before last the river, filling with heavy rain, was nudging toward flood stage. Luckily it never got there, though it did spill in places out onto the road. I had begun the settled-in season during those rains, opened a book and began to read without an end point in sight. It was a guilty pleasure. Though it was wet it was still warm enough to get some plants in the ground. That’s the problem with doing this for a living, there is an unstoppable stream of plants coming on to the property. But my clock was ticking already to a different drummer, sorry for that mixed metaphor, but you understand the ticking was drum-loud. I needed to crash, to go into reading, writing, baking, the general preoccupations that make ignoring the garden less guilt-ridden.
I was looking forward to a dismal weekend, where lethargy finally won and I could finish reading “Sukkwan Island” a startlingly excellent novella by David Vann. On page 103 when the two protagonists , a father and a son “... both looked into the sky, into the grayness that had no depth or end, and then they went inside” sounded like the perfect weekend to me. I’m sure those of you who were stuck in an office on Tuesday and Wednesday when summer made a guest appearance --I even tanned a bit-- would disagree with me.
Yet we both got what we needed.
Saturday offered all manner of glum weather, rain, wind, clouds. Hardly miserable, but “miserable” I said none-the-less, pulled the fleece blanket over my pajama’d body and went on reading. I finished “Sukkwan Island” and headed back into Roger Deakin’s Wildwood:A Journey Through Trees. I started it about a year and a half ago and have been savoring the series of essays on the cinematographer’s relationship to trees and wood, and the fascinating people and places this interest found for him. I’ve been reading Deakin’s rich humble prose in chunks between other books. And I know it will be one of those books I’ll return to over the years like Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. I finished Deakin before bed time and began assembling a stack of back issues for my Sunday reading. I was getting into this lazy thing. And what could be more lazy than reading magazines all day? Well, I guess, napping. But I’m sure that would happen between Gardens Illustrated and Pacific Horticulture.
You see, there are getting to be way too many periodicals in out house between my horticultural subscriptions and Michael’s literary ones we probably get upward to 10 magazines a month. I usually try to read them all in January when the weather is really bad and it’s time to do a little new year purging. But I was looking forward to getting an early start and maybe using my January downtime for something productive.
Then the sun came out.
It was Sunday and it was sunny. It was what all you office workers were hoping for and it dashed my lazy hopes of wallowing in the glossy world of magazines.
Oh,well, I could have just lied there basking like the cat. But you don’t know me if you think I could do that. I would take a 101 degree day, or a 101 degree fever for me to just lie around on a sunny day.
So I went for a walk.
As I walked I called my dear friend Joseph who lives back in Philadelphia. I didn’t really want to walk alone and Michael was busy writing. Joseph and I always share weather reports for the first few minutes of our calls. Who’s warmer? Who’s wetter?A bit competatively, but all in fun. He almost always wins, living on the rambunctious East Coast. When I win it is when we are having a prolonged cloudy spell, weeks, months even, without sunshine.
It happens here.
But not this year. What we’re having this year is prolonged instability. The sunshine never stays long enough to build false hopes. The rain and gray just takes us to the edge of dismal and then retreats. So when a Sunday is sunny and your plans are for lying on the sofa with stacks of back issues, because after all it is November and it should be at least cloudy if not raining, you change your plans and go out for a walk.
It was good to do some foot work assessment of the valley and the progress of fall. So after I said good-bye to Joseph I kept walking to Tolt MacDonald Park.
The river was no longer frighteningly high. Yet the “pond” is back in our neighbors’ horse paddock. The drainage ditches along the road which cuts through the swamp are engorged. Frogs scuttled across their glassy black surfaces as if winter was an afterthought instead of a foreboding. The prognosticators, those generators of doom and gloom are predicting a walloping good winter this year. Wet, cold and snowy I keep hearing. Then why is November nearly as pleasant as July?
The calm before the storm?
At this time of year, the flood season, when the river becomes threatening, I wonder sometimes why I gravitated to this watery place. Even if it only closes the north end of the road and I have to take the long way out it feels like more than an inconvenience. But I have an affinity for watery places. When Michael and I were traveling through Rajistan a few years ago I was constantly on the look out for sources for water. How do all these people live with such little water, and such dirty water at that? I am increasingly uncomfortable when I visit my sister in Arizona. I have watched Phoenix mushroom out into the desert at an alarming rate and I can’t help but ask, “Where is the water?”
“ I wondered again,” writes Roger Deakin about his travels to the arid landscapes of Kyrgyzstan, “ how it is that trees are able to feel their way towards water, even when their roots have to travel some distance to reach it. By which process do they sense its nearness? Those little roots, which do all the work of absorbing water, may just be antennae of a kind.” Like roots the search for water is innately deep in me. I feel more comfortable knowing its near. Like a willow on a river bank dangling its toes.
It was like being home being able to just walk through my neighborhood.
And the walk was remarkably rejuvenating, probably much more so then a slumped afternoon on the couch with a stack of magazines. There were birds and birders on the road, bikers, roller-skiers and Sunday-drivers-- some of them were actually driving like it was Friday afternoon-- their were families in the park, dog-walkers and dogs, joggers and me stopped on a log to take notes:
“ When I woke before dawn I opened the door to let the black cat in. At first I sniffed the darkness. Then I drew it in deeply through both nostrils. There was a faint sweetness to the air that one might misread as the first frost. It was clear enough. But not cold enough. By mid-day I basked on a log in the woods, where sun rays piercing the canopy were warm, released some tensions still lingering from the week. I had wanted a gloomy Sunday, an excuse to retreat from the world, but I was totally glad it wasn’t delivered.
“You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes you just might find,
you get what you need.”"

Monday, November 1, 2010

" JAZZ!"

Last week Michael and I went out to dinner on an inconsequential Wednesday. We went to Boxley’s Place, a rather excellent restaurant, in North Bend. Boxley’s offers live music, mostly Jazz, every night of the week.
While we were there a pianist, Tony Foster, got on stage. Was briefly and dramatically introduced, then began to play to the handful of diners. He began to play well, then perfectly. Michael and I stopped our inconsequential Wednesday conversation and turned toward the stage to listen.
There was a mike shoved in to the open lid of the grand piano, though the restaurant was small enough for un-aided music. His playing was amplified to drown out clanging cutlery, the birthday-toast glass-tinging, and the general level of the conversation which got louder when the music began.
I listened intently. But also wondered intently, about how such a talented musician ended up at Boxley’s on a Wednesday night in mid-October. An inconsequential Wednesday night at that. Did he have time to kill? Or are there just too many jazz pianists? Too few venues?
I was suddenly reminded of a guest in one of my gardens who, loaded with as much gin as I was, could not desist from questioning me. What sort of garden was this anyway? “I mean,” he begged, “what do you call this style of gardening?”
Gin-numbed I had no answer. I had never thought about a style of gardening really. My client had requested an English garden. I interpreted his wishes by creating lush and colorful mixed borders in the open woodland setting.
The guest still stared at me waiting for the answer.
“ English mixed borders?” I guessed, unconvincingly.
“No,” the garden guest continued, “ that’s too stuffy. This is not a stuffy garden at all.”
“ I don’t know,” I had continued to sip gin and a clear answer became harder and harder to find for this guest who wanted a definitive and exacting answer.
I began to swagger through my memory of the process of making this garden. What were my influences? I had never actually seen an English garden at that point. I had grabbed from every direction I could. The Italian countryside, the German naturalistic gardens I worked in, the lush annual plantings of the Missouri Botanical Garden, even the Sonoran desert. I was a collagist at heart, a surrealist. I had even been called an impressionist or an abstract expressionist, my gardens always being equated with art movements of the past.
Yet I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, put a name on my style.
But the guest only got more inflamed the vaguer I got. If I couldn’t supply an answer he would.
“ Jazz!”
Obviously he had a better handle on the gin than I did. He was suddenly clear and confident in his assessment.
“That’s it! It’s like jazz!”
Now jazz is not my favorite kind of music. It’s too complex, too sophisticated, too brainy for my tastes. But here he was someone I had met for the first time calling my style of gardening “Jazz!”.
And he was right.
All the other tags I applied to this garden, all my efforts to name what I was up to fell short.
Then flat when he repeated it, “Jazz!”
I felt he was becoming more interested in his assessment, his accurate assessment I must add, then in the garden, my style or even me.
As I looked around with the word “Jazz!” bumping against the gin in my head, I could see the complexity and the brainy sophistication in the borders. I could see his point.
I wondered if anyone else saw it that way. Or knew what they saw. Or cared. Most of the other guests in the garden that evening weren’t even looking at the garden; it was just background noise to their conversations.
On that inconsequential night at Boxley’s, I was drinking gin and watching Tony Foster play his heart out to no one but Michael and I. I saw my own dilemna of “playing to deaf ears”. But this pianist’s confidence, the very timbre of his being needed to play. He would have played, like falling in an earless forest, because he had to play.
Like I have to garden.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A few nights ago Michael put on some Thelonious Monk for dinner music.
Now I like dinner and I like music, but some forms of jazz at dinner jangle my digestion.
Maybe it is the demands of the music drawing me away from the pleasure of the meal. I have a hard time “drowning it out”. I decided at that moment, “I don’t like jazz.,” though I kept it to myself.
But I can’t help but agree with the garden guest from years ago, who insisted on calling the garden I created “Jazz!”. I love syncopation. I love setting up a rhythm and breaking it. I love to free associate, to improvise. It’s probably why I found so much pleasure in collage for years. I had made a god of collage and made my gardens in his image. But slowly I am beginning to see the musicality of gardens.
Already years ago I was flirting with this idea, when I was living in Germany and had way more time for thought. A man I was dating at the time was studying musicology at the University of Bonn. I couldn’t believe how angry he was with me for insisting that music and gardening were very closely linked art forms. As if I were trying to connect heaven with hell.
I wasn’t just talking about the rustling of leaves in the wind, or songbirds’ warblings. I insisted that both took place in time and worked intently with interpreting time. He would have none of it. I think that’s when he started considering me an idiot and our lovely little love affair ended shortly thereafter.
I still believe the ideation necessary to make a garden span time is the same sort of ideation needed to make music. I still believe in rhythm, “that fascinating rhythm”. In syncopation, in meter, in harmony and dissonance, and in cadence in the garden.
I still beleive in Ella Fitzgerald, Keith Jarret, Betty Carter, Duke Ellington, and even Thelonious Monk
And, yes, that’s Jazz.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Picture a blue dawn nibbling at the blackness as the thermometer continue to drop. The morning turns a rich Cornell blue, a distant blue I named after Joseph Cornell the collagist I imitated for years.
Picture the lapis fog hugging the vague and luminous morning, pulling it near.
Picture a fog so thick the wipers scrape it off the windshield like lightly falling snow.
Picture the illustrious blue fading as the day brightens, whitens.
Picture the bruised apple brown of the big leafed maples;
the speckled towers of Lombardy poplars;
the edible red of Virginia creeper spilling down the barrier walls on the freeway as I race by.
Picture the blues far behind me.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I know the orange assault of the sugar maple has only begun, but I can’t help but think of spring. I’m planting bulbs this weekend. And just the other day when I entered the greenhouses a Molbak’s Farm I was overwhelmed by the scent of violets, the sweet elusive fragrance vanished quickly. But not it’s impact. I was standing in a house full of warm sunshine and 1000s of winter pansies. It didn’t smell like fall at all. No crisp vinegar of rotting apples, no burnt sugar of katsura, or marigolds’ persistent pungency. It was the sweet scent of spring. Or the faux spring of my youth when I visited the temperate dome at the Mitchell Park Conservatory around Valentine’s Day. The streets outside would be crusted with months of old snow, but inside newly planted and replete with pansies and bulbs we got a glimpse of spring.
I grew up in a place where winter pansy was an oxymoron. So when I arrived in Seattle 22 years ago and saw pansies for sale at the grocery store in November I was shocked.
Shocked and delighted. I love pansies. My excitement about moving to the Northwest trebled as I put the little blue 4” pansy into my shopping cart. Yet I was both doubtful and hopeful.

Until a few months later when the north winds flew in with fists, like a master boxer, flattening my winter pansy. Down for the count, I had little hope and abundant doubts about winter pansies. Yet with the first warmish days of February it was up again. It was perched so carelessly on the window ledge, god knows I was doing nothing to help it along. I am a cruel lover.
Then a February snow floated in like a butterfly and stung like a bee, taking the wind out of my hopes completely. My little blue pansy, I had chosen “Crystal Bowl True Blue” for it’s stunningly icy purity, lied bruised and prostate over the edge of the pot.
Not all pansies are winter pansies. Maybe I had been duped?
Most pansies fitting into the inter specific hybrid Viola x wittrockiana, named after the Swedish botanist V.B. Wittrock who studied them extensively, are the progeny of three european species. V. tricolor, V. lutea and V. alaica. The enthusiastic hybridizing which began in England in the 1820s, made pansies one of the most popular annuals.
Though botanically speaking all pansies are Violas, not all violas are pansies. Some sources say the difference lies in fragrance, pansies have it and violas don’t , carrying more genetic information from the scentless V. tricolor. Another source says that pansies have a black velvety splotch in the middle where as violas don’t. I asked a friend at Wells Medina Nursery, who said, “We call the little ones violas and the big ones pansies.”
“ A rose by any other name...” I replied.

Nomenclature and botany aside, I love them all. And their persistent popularity, almost 2 centuries, is proof that I am not alone. With over 70 names in English they have endeared people as much as dogs or cats. Of these names “pansy” , from the French pensee meaning “thoughts”, seems to have stuck. Thought, one author speculates, because it is “ the noblest faculty with which mankind is gifted”. My Aunt Lottie had her own take on it, she found their pinched little faces charming aggravated with thought. “Heart’s-ease”, a name that appears as often in older literature speaks to the calming effects of the fragrance and it’s attribution to Saint Valentine. And I must admit they do do something to my heart that feels quite a bit like ease.
By April of my first year here, my seemingly limp-wristed pansy, like the effeminate boys it lends its name to, proved to be tough. Came out swinging. As winter was lead from the ring, my little winter pansy was crowned with a victor’s bouquet of blue. This same triumphant nature has inspired British artist Paul Harfleet to develop The Pansy Project, an ongoing installation to bring awareness to homophobic abuse.
And to spread the love of pansies. Sometimes as orange as maples

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Last Sunday we left our home at 65 feet above sea level to go hiking near Mount Rainier. It was Michael’s birthday, actually the day before, and he just wanted to “get away”.
We headed out of the fog belt early, or so we thought. By the time we had reached the gate of the park our hopes of seeing the mountain were pretty slim. Even the ranger who greeted us as we entered said, “You won’t see the mountain today.” We decided to drive up to the trailhead at Sunrise anyway. At times we were totally encased in clouds. Yet when we reached Sunrise and the lodge at 6385 feet, the day broke all its dreary promises and showed us blue skies and a magnificent view of the north side of Mount Rainier.

The clouds had not really broke, they lurched and eddied below us in the valley. We had risen above them. The lodge had already closed for the season and the normal crowds were absent from the parking lots and trails at Sunrise. We planned only a small hike, but it kept expanding as we enter this incredible landscape. Humbled hikers coming down, dumbfounded by the beauty said simple things like; “ Great view.”; “It’s worth the trip.”; or “It’s beautiful up there.”
We hiked through the alpine meadows and clusters of alpine firs(Abies lasciocarpa). Up on to the tundra covered lava flow of Burroughs Mountain.

Though I knew it was beautiful up there I also could not stop seeing the beauty all around. I would have been just as happy, or so I say now, if the mountain had not shown itself and our view had been limited to the statuesque heights of the white barked pines (Pinus albicaulis), to the flushes of huckleberries, blueberries and mountain ash turning fiery hues. I would have been happy with lichen speckled rocks, seed heads and chipmunks. Yet the shear mass of the volcano drew us on. I stopped as often as possible, though, to take snap shots along the way. The details were so engrossing. I love the details. “God’s in the details,” it's sais. But who said? Descartes? Henry Ford?

Michael was getting a bit perturbed with me stopping to snap at a wild flower, a picturesque view, or a portrait of him. “Why can’t a hike just be a hike?” he harumphed. I told him, “Don’t stop for me; I’ll catch up.” But he has some inbred politeness, akin to my inbred acquisitiveness, which makes him stop and wait. Which makes me hurry up, feeling like the “ol’ ball and chain” again. I understand that a goal is set, but I’m a dallier. I like to botanize, take a photo, watch a bird through the binoculars.
Why am I so unsatisfied with the 2 lenses God gave me? I have excellent eye site, at least at a distance, reading glasses are a necessity though. Why do I need to capture with the little lens of my camera, my little ineffectual camera in the face of such grandeur, any of this? Why must I zoom ahead of my steps with the binoculars? Go beyond where I am to over there, way over there, to catch some detail I could catch with the bare eye? When at my feet the detail is rich and rewarding?
I even questioned my eyes and their exquisite lenses, 52 year old lenses still penetrating the visual world with acuity and speed. Soaring miles across the landscape, or hunkering down into saxifrages clutching at rocks. Here I was in front of this sprawling view of the mountain and all I could do was see it. I wondered about an internal lens, a way of perception beyond seeing. Or a way of seeing beyond perception. I am only speculating here, but I imagine that lens is what some people call the soul. This huge polished convex existence I call me, facing the world, both absorbing and reflecting it.

Then a clutter of alpine birds skittered over the pumice strewn moonscape of Burroughs Mountain and I went for my binoculars as a hunter would a gun. The birds didn’t pause very long, the binoculars were useless. If I would have watched them with my eyes what sort of flighty dance would I have seen? What wealth of detail is required by the casual observer? If I had stopped opened some magical internal lens of my imaginings, what would I have seen? The swirl of the cosmos wrapped in gray feathers? Or just birds being birds?

Michael had already reached the summit, “ the very end of the world” as he called it. I had to catch up. My questions became as cumbersome as cameras and binoculars, and my ever acquisitive eyes.

At 7400 feet I joined him for an apple on a rock above a gaping white sea of clouds below and the incomprehensible mountain above. The mountain rumbled with avalanches. I was covered with awe like a blanket, like blindness though I could see.
I could see.

The winds shifted and the clouds began moving up the flanks of the mountain. As we hiked down the clouds swaddled the trail. Forced us back into the human scale world of conifers rocks, and alpine perennials. The flowering was over, yet the spectacle of regeneration plumed the alpine meadows with seeds. I stopped again and again as I tend to do. Maybe Michael was getting tired, he stopped more too. Maybe he was beginning to enjoy the little pauses these stops prompted. Maybe he was beginning to appreciate a chance to dally as much as I appreciate him driving us on.
And driving us home through some of the densest fogs I’ve seen.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I thought I had exhausted the nursery possibilities here in the Northwest. Maybe I was exhausted, gave up the hunt for something new. I stopped going to plant sales, started doing more mail order. Dragged seed back from Italy, Turkey and Wisconsin.
Yes, Wisconsin.
I’m getting older, becoming more motivated by nostalgia than innovation. Last month, I traveled with glee through my home state which I loathed with a premeditated boredom just years ago, over 25 now. Having firmly and irreversibly moved away, and as I said, having grown older and more nostalgic, I find Wisconsin a delightful place. Its rather lackadaisical - you must realize I live with a view to the rather dramatic tectonic uplift of the Cascades - landscape has a loveliness akin to Central Europe or England. As we drove through rolling farm land, the shear agronomic force of the state made us hungry. And Wisconsinites, my family among them, have a propensity toward eating. As we drove by wagon loads of melons, squash and sweet corn I begrudged our road trip which did not always involve a kitchen at the end of the day.Though we did mange a stop at a cheese factory for “squeeky” cheese.
But Michael and I were not on a culinary foray, but a horticultural one. When I lived in Wisconsin, it’s where I studied botany, I rarely found time for gardens. I was in the woods or in a bar, or the library. I had not quite seen my future as a gardener. Though there were gardeners all around me and I always managed to find the 3 square feet of bare dirt behind any apartment I lived in to fill with a tomato plant or sunflowers, I still did not consider myself a gardener. Even to this day I have a shrug-it-off reluctance to calling myself a gardener, though I garden continually. And when not gardening I am writing about gardening.
So Wisconsin had many surprises for us with it’s many interesting and regionally driven gardens. As we toured around I began to realize a whole host of my favorite plants either come form there or perform better there than in the timid climate of the Pacific Northwest. I am especially fond of prairie plants. Liatris, black eyed susans, tall blue-stem, golden rod. I have tried to use them in the gardens I create here, but eventually they succumb to the dry summers or a warm wet winter. These plants were made to thrive in a harsh climate. Only in rare pockets of the Northwest have I seen the prairie style of gardening succeed. Yet there even the weedy roadsides looked like grand mixed borders and European weeds like Queen Anne’s lace, day lilies and sow thistle wriggled into the mix as if guided by a designing hand.
One of the few prairie plants I have had success with in the Northwest is the black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia ssp.) Their outlandish color, though hard to mix, and stalwart nature has made them nearly ubiquitous at this point. Yet I never tire of this ubiquity especially at this time of year when doses of strong color assuage any melancholy brought on by the encroaching gray.

I was captivated by the height and pinwheel-like flowers of the sweet black-eyed susan named ‘Henry Eilers’ (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), when I saw it at Northwind Perennial Farm. With the impulse of a neophyte I bought one, along with compass flower (Silphium lanciniatum) and deer-tongued grass (Dicanthelium clandestinum).

In the display gardens at Northwind it was obviously late summer. The dramatic sweeps of grasses, both native and exotic with a mix of shrubs and flowering perennials were already crashing from excessive rains, drought and high winds. But his chaos was beautiful and strangely restful compared to the more dramatic annual plantings elsewhere.

Although I was glad we stopped at the Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville. The outrageously unexpected red and black borders surrounding the parking were stunning.

At the Olbrich Garden in Madison grasses were used through out, as architecturally as conifers or furniture.

The exotic Japanese fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) and Japanese silver grass ( Miscanthus cv.) frame a ‘Golden Globe’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis- a Wisconsin native).

The Monarchs were leaving in great feeding flocks, if that is what butterflies travel in. And we, too, had to travel.

I borrowed a suitcase from my sister to pack all the plants I was bringing back. Who did I think I was? Dan Hinkley? Was I trying to retrieve a past I never truly appreciated? Or experienced? I had dug 3 black spruce (Picea mariana) from my parents farm. Was I trying to transplant the great northern forests that cover Canada to the Snoqulamie Valley? Or was I truly just experimenting with a tree that I've grown calmly and slowly fond of? I dug a piece of my mother’s fern leaf peony (Paeonia tenuifolia ‘Rubra Flora Plena’??) which I knew I could getback in Seattle, but it wouldn’t be from my mother’s garden. But when I saw the ‘Henry Eilers’ rudbeckia at the Northwest Horticultural Society’s plant sale ,where I bought even more plants, I realized maybe my search of Northwest nurseries was not as exhaustive as I thought. Maybe I am just suffering from the exhaustion of acquisition. But I know when that rudbeckia blooms and reminds me of a September day in rural Wisconsin, I will have forgotten the $15 dollars i spent on that extra peice of luggage and remeber a Septenber day in rural Wisconsin.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


If clothes make the man, weather makes the garden. No matter how clever my plantings, how thorough my care a heavy rain, a cold spring, or a hot dry spell can alter a garden in ways never intended.

A few weeks ago when I visited the Chicago Botanical Garden with my sister Julie, the winds were high the sky smudgy with clouds, making photography rather difficult and the whole visit fraught with a low level irritation. Not at all my experience there on other occasions. I didn’t like the garden. But truly I didn’t like the weather. Even though the stiff Japanese garden didn’t budge in the winds there was no tranquility to it, only resistance. The only serenity to be found that day was in the banks of ornamental grasses plowed over by the forceful winds. They had no qualms as they became the winds, which we could not.

A few days later at Taliesen the winds were more rambunctious. As Michael and I roamed the hills of this fascinating estate, we were nearly blown away. Yet Frank Lloyd Wright who grew up in this rolling landscape along the Wisconsin River, knew these winds and designed bluffs and coves of ferny stillness which were refuges on our tour.

Just a few days ago it was a weather-less day. No shadow under the thin fog, no precipitation, no wind. The fog lent a whiteness to the morning that made everything gray. Yet you could hear the sun’s rays pinging off the upper surface of the fog bank as they slowly stripped it away with seductive slowness. First the shoulder of a hill, then the moony pale inner thigh of the lake. Eventually the sun broke through and a breeze trembled through the springy boughs.
Even this little shift from morning to afternoon was a reminder of the direction we were heading.
Yes, the winds will come.
The leaves will fly.
The rains fall, and the frosts kill.
That weather-less day was the last day of summer and, paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, it ended with a whimper, not a bang.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Sometimes I am so frustrated by blogging that I want to quit. No time has this been more true than this morning when I sat down to post about my recent trip to Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It seems all I can share is snippets and snap shots. I can not pour the familiar humid fragrance of late summer in Milwaukee through cyberspace. Nor can I capture the warblings of warblers in Estebrook Park, or the crack of wind in leaves. Nor the subtle changes of temperature through out the day. The blast of hail, the crack and blitz of lightening and thunder. Nor the bite and sugar of a vine ripe Big Boy tomato sliced thick and big enough to cover a whole slice of toast slathered with mayonaise.
I can not capture the miles traveled to family visits, gardens explored and natural wonders touched. But one trip with n the bigger trip I cannot avoid writing about.

Michael had never seen Lake Superior, so when we were visiting my parents on their farm in the Iron River we decided to take a day trip north.

Our first stop at Canyon Falls on the Sturgeon River was a revelation. What the guide book calls the “Grand Canyon of Michigan” is only 300 feet deep at it’s deepest farther north from where we stopped. Yet the twists and turns of the river through the forest as it headed into the canyon were lovely.
Our goal was Point Abbaye an un-populated cape just east of the town of L’Anse. The road in had my father perpetually asking “Where are we going?” Michael jokingly responded, “To the end of the world.” I was beginning to wonder myself if we were headed toward the end of the world as the gravel road narrowed, got muddier and offered only scant views of the the lake through the dense forest. We wondered if we had made the right choice, but there was no place to turn the car around, so on we went.

We were not disappointed when we finally reached our goal. The sand stone shelf flaked and eroded by wind and water at the tip of the cape was picturesque and offered great views of the Huron Islands and the Huron Mountains to the south.

Michael walked right out to the very end of the world.

While I got into the details of the place.

We only saw a snippet of the lake, a hint of it’s vastness. Lake Superior, the third largest body of fresh water in the world has the largest surface area of any, 31,820 square miles and contains over 2904 square miles of water. It’s a cold lake with and average summer temperature of 40 degrees and the deepest of the Great Lakes at 1332 feet, give or take and inch.

The wind swept point was densely forested nearly to the shore and with a surprising number of very large trees that I though should have succumbed to the horrific winter storms that cross the lake.

My parents posed for me in front of the largest red maple (Acer rubrum) I’ve ever seen. Even though I had visited many gardens, the Chicago Botanical Garden, Olbrich Garden in Madison, the wonderful Northwind Perennial Nursery and Taliesen, Frank Lloyd Wright's school and home in Spring Green, WI on this trip, nothing could match the beauty of this little forlorned cape jutting proudly, silently into the vastness of Lake Superior. And a brisk and summy day spent with my parents and Michael.