Sunday, January 30, 2011


In January, as all the hope and sparkle of Christmas is stripped away, when we are left finally with what we’ve been avoiding: Winter, is when they begin to appear. Tropical Beaches. They appear on billboards and in magazines, on the sides of buses. Palm trees, blue waters and sunshine, everything we feel we are lacking.
So when I arrived in Milwaukee at the beginning of the coldest month of the whole winter, my sister was laughing, “ Why did you come to Wisconsin in January?”
I fished through my thoughts: “Cheap airfares?”; “ Work was slow, it was a good time to get away?”.
Actually I wanted to visit my parents at a time of year when they rarely get visitors. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the U.P. as it is fondly known, isn’t much of a draw unless you like ice fishing or snowmobiling, neither of which were in my plans.
I love winter, real wintery winter, it must be encoded in my nordic genes. I had no problem whatsoever with the cold. It sure beat the soggy flooded cloudy valley back home. Breathing the dry cold air, like mountain top air, was so exhilarating, my post-flood blues fell off me in one big lump, like the ice that fell off the chassises of semis on the freeway as I drove further north and away from the tempering of Lake Michigan.
When I arrived at my parents farm outside Iron River the temperature was already 10 below zero. The snow was squeaky, dry and kick-able as sand. I ran from the car to the door, the house was, thankfully, as warm as an oven. A tropical island with bananas and oranges in a bowl.
By Saturday night the temperature had dropped to 28 below, that’s without a wind chill factor. I don’t even think it’s that cold on the top of Mount Rainier. I couldn’t resist going out before bed to see the stars. I slipped on some shoes and a jacket, I wanted to feel the cold. Become one with it.
It had been years since I had seen the stars glisten so. With no major cities near by and acres of national forest land surrounding my parents’ farm it is a very dark place at night. Stars are always particularly bright there. With the cold temperatures stripping every bit of moisture out of the air, icicles formed on my beard and mustache in the mere moments I was outside, the stars shined. Never have I felt so among them, felt the coldness of outer space so cuddlingly close. As the skin of my cheeks tightened and burned like some astringent spa treatment, I realized I would not survive long, even if I was filled with my mother rich stew and had a least three layers of underclothes between me and eternity. One needed a space suit for this kind of weather or a few shots of strong whiskey downed in foolishness. I could feel the cold air constricting in my throat as I breathed.Since the whisky was back in the house, I left the charms of the starry night sky behind for faux tropical comfort.

The next morning at breakfast we watched the clusters of chickadees, nuthatches (2 types), gold finches, actually drab finches in dull winter plumage, and red squirrels unfazed by the frigid temperatures, gorging on sunflower and millet seeds. My father in his new child-like wisdom wondered, “ Are those trees going to make it?” We looked out at their 100 year old apple orchard. I had to admit all the trees looked dead, not just sleeping. There is no “zonal denial” here. Zone 2 is zone 2. It took my mother years to find a forsythia cultivar that could survive the winter and there is only one rose in her garden, just a scraggly pink rugosa dwarfed by the climate. But my how here peonies and lupines thrive.
“ You’ll have to wait until May, “ I told my father, “ to see if they start to grow again.”

Later when it was sufficiently warmer, it was only 9 below, my mother and I went out for a snowshoeing around the 40. The biting cold was tempered by the lack of wind, yet we only lasted half an hour. And were back on the sofa reading and eating pretzels.
When I left a few days later the temperatures were decidedly over zero. The thermometer in my rental car read 13 degrees as I pulled out of their drive. I wondered how my parents had lived through over 30 winters there. Certainly they have a good furnace, and a knack for avoiding boredom I can’t fathom. Yet I envied them there life in such a pure and beautiful place, as if they lived on a mountain top like a Nepalese lamas. By the time I reached Milwaukee only 212 miles south and tempered by being on the shores of Lake Michigan it was in the 20’s. It felt balmy.

But it was still winter. Even that great hulking lake was icing up.

And even though I ran into the Milwaukee Art Museum to enjoy the colorful collection of folk art, I couldn’t stop my fixation with the white world of winter and sat on a bench in front of this sculpture ‘Edge of England’ by British artist Cornelia Parker made of chunks of the white cliffs of Dover suspended like a moment of memory. Snowy memory.
That’s all it is now, back in the snug green valley of the Pacific Northwest where the witch hazels and snow drops and the early daffodils bloom.
When I talked to my mother today she said contentedly, “ It warmed up; it got up to 15.”
I grumbled back about the gray and the damp.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


A flock of trumpeter swans flew honkingly over the house as I took this picture of the swamp's slow encroachment.

Later that day the river broke it's banks. Flowing over fields and roads, it quickly filled the valley.

The next morning a flock of trumpeter swans flew over the house, afloat in a murky rushing lake.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


We were back to those day that the weather man on KIXI ironically called “those lovely days when the high and the low are only one degree apart”. The temperance of the Pacific Northwest is what drew me and a million other gardeners here. Still every year my mother asks me as she sits in her living room looking out the window at feet of U.P. snow, “How can you keep busy this time of year?” She is a Midwesterner of German decent and keeping busy is of the utmost importance. I actually totally enjoyed the week between the holidays when just a dusting of snow validated my laziness. I actually lied on the sofa for days and read. And if that isn’t lazy enough for you, I took naps. Not one or two , but many naps. Long winter naps.
After a while the somnolent days wore thin. I wanted to get busy. There is nothing like the rush of productivity. I am a real American in those matters. Fortunately just as the the holidays ended our “ warm” winter weather returned and melted the white wash of snow. Most of the year snow is evasive here, at high elevations, or a brief traffic-fucking burst in the lowlands. I love the way it gently changes the world, washes it clean in a sense.
This past week as the snow vanished the flood debris, the rotting cabbage and the muddy paths returned to the farm. They were always there, just hidden. And now here it comes again as I write, snow. It’s starting to stick. And there is more on the way. I love the unified world covered in a blanket of white. I love even more all the garden projects around here put on hold, I know in a few months it will nearly be impossible to get me into the house until dark, so I’m savoring this mini-vacation. Skimming through my photo files for white flowers. But what I found a lot of was white variegation.
Being a “color-guy”, I thought I’d find more yellow variegated plants than white in my files. But it wasn’t the case. I use plenty of white variegation in the gardens I create. Especially as a foil for dark flowers. Here are a few of my favorites:

I love variegated hosta, this unidentified one in my friend Jon's garden isluminous in his dark front yard

Royal catchfly ( Silene regia) screams in front of variegated figwort ( Schrophularia aquatica 'Variegata')

Menzies' Burnet (Sanguisorba menziesii) a northwest native looks exotic in this border of variegated plants including variegated pamapas ( Cortaderia selloana 'Silver Comet'), Miscanthus 'Cosmopolitan' and variegated yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Silver and Gold')

Variegated Money Plant ( Lunaria annua ' Variegata Alba') makes a dramatic statement in the spring garden, here paired with Marsh Marigol (Caltha palustris).

Lamium 'White Nancy' in a classy combination in Jon's garden.

Forsythia 'Kumson' has foliage like a tropical house plant.

Japanese knotweed is nothing I recommend planting, it covers acres herein the Snoqualmie Valley, Bu the variegated form (Fallopia japonica 'Variegata') is well behaved and beautiful in all stages of growth. Here it is still showing the pinkish caste of the young growth.

One of my favoite hostas 'Mount Tom'.

Variegated Pennywort (Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides 'Crystal Confetti') is a manageable thug that makes a bright ground cover under dark foliaged shrubs like Weigelia 'Dark Horse'.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Beyond it’s banner of complimentary red and green, behind the glitter of silver and gold, Christmas is the white holiday. Blame it on the snow or Irving Berlin but Christmas even trumps New Year’s Eve with Old Man Time, white-bearded and white robed, and the New Year Baby, freshly diapered. I was once very caught up in Christmas decorating, when I worked in retail and then for a florist. And I still hold an interest though I am less likely to expend yards of energy on decorating like in the past. But I do love to visit the city and see what all the retailers are doing.
It was a decidedly white Christmas in Seattle. No it didn’t snow. But every window in town seems to have been hit by a blizzard. Windows were frothy, frosty and spare. Even on the home front, my friend Jon, the consummate tree decorator, purchased his first flocked tree, and Michael’s mother abandoned all sentimentality and bought a new fake tree and covered it with doves, snowflakes and pearls.

I like a white Christmas of the snowy kind. And we did hit a patch in the Blue Mountains on our drive back from Boise, that threw us into the median barrier. And then a day later it hit us here in the valley. Not a blizzard, but not a dusting either. With the frigid temperatures that followed a furry pelt of hoarfrost crystallized over limb, blade and board.
Just the kind of holiday days for a fire in the stove and a book on the sofa.
I’m reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes by ceramist Edmund de Waal, who works in porcelain making rarified collections of white cylinders. And, being a white lover I assume, had to include the detail that his distant Uncle had 20 gardeners on his winter estate in southern France, and they all wore white. Maybe he was missing the winter snows of Vienna like I miss the winter snows of Wisconsin during our long green and gray winters here in the Northwest. Or maybe it was a way to keep an eye on them. I like to dress in grays and browns when I work. To hide in the garden, so that it seems like the garden is gardening itself.

Yet even now as I write looking out on the snowy white landscape, I am beginning to wish for a thaw.
The holidays are over and I have to get back to work.