Blossoms

On the phone recently my niece, a college coed back in the north of the East, reported sighting a crocus blooming – and snow falling. Being past the vernal equinox, a crocus is more welcome than snow.

An animated bloom map of the Northern Hemisphere would be fun to see. Purple lighting up for crocus, yellow for daffodil, orangey-red for tulip, multiplying and fading, each in their own time according to growing zone, pointillist dots adding up to a flush of spring color.

Some of the earliest blossoms anywhere will be flowering native shrubs – food plants. In the northwest, on the imaginary map, the earliest dots would be white for Indian plum, then shades of pink for huckleberry, salmonberry, and ribes.

The ribes here, the flowering currant, planted in the wind path four years ago, tilts. Deer found it in the first year, and pruned in their careless way. After that I netted it off with mesh big enough to discourage deer but small enough to let the birds and bees come and go. The ribes recovered, and the new branches grow straight up, each now a wand covered in shocking-pink blossoms – mostly out of deer reach.

It’s a rosy colored feast of nectar for hummingbirds, and I’ve watched a troop of little orange-crowned warblers turning nearly upside down to stick their beaks in the blossoms. A chipmunk, with unmistakable stripes, sits under the ribes and reaches up to pluck a blossom, holding it to eat with two-pawed enthusiasm. Juncos alternate shelter in the ribes branches with dips in a nearby bath.

This year we saw the first bee of the spring on the ribes. March bees aren’t the background hum they become – they’re individuals finding their way, searching for food. Bees work the hellebore and the pulmonaria, rolling in pollen, reaching for nectar. A bee caught out overnight and dozing in the early morning cold tucked into the yellow light of a daffodil is a sweet sight.

Winter kale now becomes a flowering tree, with yellow blossoms the bees love (the stem on the kale is thicker than the trunks of the little fruit trees). And happily, blossoms cover those fruit trees now – first the cherry, and then plum blossoms, opening one-by-one, more stamen and anther than petal. (Settling in to barrel and bed, but catching up, buds swell on the new apple trees.)

April begins tomorrow, last day for the ribes to decorate the foldbook header, and soon the blossom map lights up everywhere. Even if you have lingering snow piles, mud season, or breakup – spring is here!

Inspiring a Garden

Gardening shares similarities with other creative projects (including the old clothes). Knowledge helps, and experience, but inspiration, in the sense of energy and enthusiasm, carries the day.

Gardening inspiration comes easily from books. (So many books that I’ve added a Gardening Bibliography page to the right.) I have a garden, care about gardens, because of books. Gardening is local, but inspiration is global – and it often comes from England.

While how-to teachers held my hand every step of the way in building the garden here (more about that soon), I wouldn’t have even begun without the books that excite me like those of Mary Keen and Mirabel Osler, the kind that encourage me to try.

In spite of their expertise, Keen a garden designer and Osler a garden writer, welcomed me as a beginner. Echoing the 18th Century poet and gardener Alexander Pope, Keen counsels to “Consult the genius of the place.” Osler, in her book “A Gentle Plea for Chaos” says, “Relax.”

Keen’s book “Creating a Garden” enchanted me, but she won my heart when I heard her speak at the Seattle flower show six years ago. Early in her lecture (full of wisdom and useful information) smiling, but speaking firmly in her proper accent, she invited anyone who wanted to use poison and not be “green” to leave the lecture room. She also said her favorite garden was hers, and yours should be yours.

Another British garden designer said if you can declare “it’s a good garden for me” – then it is. People find garden happiness in many ways: food, beauty, nostalgia, pure plant passion, a desire to be part of the natural world, or, some of all of the above. Sometimes I think I know what people want from their gardens – like the bookbinders who are excellent farmers or my clever friend who lives in town and delights all passersby with an exuberant cottage garden.

I found where I described my garden to myself as a “crude approximation of a Washington garden,” and I would be more comfortable if you thought of it that way, too. The phrase occurs because I compare what’s here with what’s possible – which is nearly every plant under temperate world’s sun. Like England – the state’s a garden – with excellent gardeners.

But for me a good garden isn’t perfect (thankfully) and that’s probably where my fondness for Osler’s injunction lies, and now gardens don’t seem beautiful unless they are good to the earth. So that’s a focus here, along with creating a garden in keeping with the woods and enjoying the cycle of the year. I’d like beauty and solace and a place for critters – the wild ones and us.

Osler writes:

“This brings me to another observation which I think goes with my original longing for a little shambles here and there. For it seems that proper gardeners never sit in their gardens. Dedicated and single-minded, the garden draws them into its embrace where their passions are never assuaged unless they are on their knees. But for us, the unserious, the improper people, who plant and drift, who prune and amble, we fritter away little dollops of time in sitting about our gardens.”

“So me too” – as one of our kids used to say.

Blunders

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could, some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely.”                         Ralph Waldo Emerson

That quote, scribbled in pencil on a scrap of paper, sits on the windowsill of my room, I see it when I shut the shades at night. Usually I pay attention to the end – it’s a variation on “things will be better in the morning” – but the blunder-forgiveness part also comforts. Like life, gardening can sometimes be full of blunders; forgiveness is always a good idea.

We inherited more lawn than I would have chosen – but lawn speaks to some people, maybe all people in a harkening-back-to-the-savannah voice. Lawns please kids and dogs – and brides and grooms. And nothing is sweeter, if you have the right spot, than a small, highly manicured square for clustering chairs for summer sitting – a space where bellis stays and dandelions go – a flowery mead.

Over our time here we’ve tried all sorts of ways to be with our grass (except lawn care involving chemicals). At first, being new to a sizeable lawn, we had it religiously, frequently, routinely mowed. Then, during the summer of construction, the lawn became an overgrown field needing a hay mower to reclaim.

Now we’ve settled into a manageable arrangement: a wonderful guy with an energy-efficient mower cuts the grass minimally, and through that longish grass, the good natured-husband mows paths with a push mower along desire-lines (to the bluff and the birdbaths). That combination mostly allows the greensward to stay green and weed-seed-free through spring growing. The lawn’s length makes it more hospitable to small and often unseen co-inhabitors here. I’m glad when the lawn goes quietly summer dormant.

My garden beds have a motley selection of edgings – old fence posts, broken concrete, boulders, a wattle fence – attempts to “contain the abundance.” It’s all a little shaggy, but defined. Helping to define is a small battery-fed weed whacker so underpowered our younger son, who lives on a manicured lot in Los Angeles, thinks it’s laughable. The British call weed whackers “strimmers” – a good name for this tool.

The strimmer helps with edges, makes more orderly the beginnings of paths and around beds and fencepost, but I am clumsy. Out by the bench, when attempting to give it the appearance of kempt – a green frame – I beheaded three budded daffodils by getting too close.

Graciously – in the same way gardens often forgive our mistakes – the daffodils opened in water the next morning and blossomed, blossomed well and serenely.

A Nearby Island

Accustomed to Alaska’s separation and vast distances, it’s still a treat for me to drive somewhere and change my scene. Bainbridge to the south, with its little town  and ferry connection to Seattle, is an easy outing.

This day I had made an appointment to submit my work to the jury process for a gallery in Winslow. Since 1948 the Gallery at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts has supported artists as a non-profit. Once each month members of the staff look at original work and consider new artists. I took all the supporting materials to explain one’s art (including the address for Her spirits rose…) and dropped it off, making an appointment to return and pick it up.

When my mother lived on Bainbridge  during the last years of her life, I visited increasingly frequently from Alaska. My mother is always on my mind there, as I remember trips to the doctor and the grocery store – and on a good day to the New Rose Café at Bainbridge Gardens.

The New Rose is a mish-mash of outdoor tables, almost out of the wind. Gardener lunch mates drink tea from little teapots and china cups. Birds chitter in the background. I order a cup of black bean soup.

Afterwards, wandering around this big nursery, I’m entering that imagining state gardeners inhabit on an undirected visit to a nursery. What would I do with that plant, where does that belong, that looks good, how big would it get? Does it need sun?

I spend a long time in the fruit trees. I have a Sweetheart cherry some seven years old, and a plum that might leap now in its third year – buds on both offer fruit hope. Even though it is not practical in a space as small as the courtyard to want another, I stop to read the labels on columnar apples. They’ve always seemed peculiar – just straight fat sticks – but in the picture on the label, covered with apples. A straight fat stick doesn’t take much space. Tempting.

Happy news waiting for me at BAC – they’d be glad to add me to their large list of artists – smiles all around. Especially from me – I’m glad to have an art connection closer to home again. And this gallery has interesting outreach programs I’ll enjoy being part of.

On the way home I’d planned a stop at the other big nursery – Bay Hay it’s called – to console myself if need be. Bay Hay has a different feel – in addition to plants, it offers baby chicks, animal feed, work clothes, wool socks – and also columnar apples.

To celebrate I buy two (for pollination). A burly young man carefully loads Malus pumila ‘Northpole’ and M. pumila ‘Golden Sentinel’ into the car.

More buds of hope.

Bird Baths

This morning I stood for a long time listening to, but unable to see, a bird bathing in the hidden bath. From the moment we set it up on an old stump, surrounded by salal, with a wild rose budding and prickling in front, the dish has been a popular and sought-after spot.

I love that watery sound – involving much whirring, vaguely like a dog’s shake, but a smaller, faster sound. It’s hard to hear it as anything but pleasure or happiness.

When Richard Mabey speaks of the human skills of image-making and language in his book “Nature Cure,” he asks if we can use those skills, not to separate us from nature but as a “gateway to understanding our kindredness to the rest of creation, to fitting our oddness into the scheme of things, to become awakeners, celebrators, to add our particular ‘singing’ to that of the rest of the natural world.”

Mabey’s book is a poignant, beautiful tale of a broken spirit, brought low by depression after a series of life events, including the completion of a monumental work cataloguing the flora of Britain, but then revived by re-engagement with nature – not just being in nature, but the struggle to use his skills, regain “his imaginative relationship with the world beyond.”

Sometimes it seems easiest to make that imaginative connection when another species behaves in a way I think I can understand. Often those observations are painful, sighting a lost dog or learning of lost habitat, so I cling to joyous moments – like the love of a bath.

We don’t feed the birds here, but we do offer water, in simple bird dishes fashioned from the large pottery saucers meant to go underneath large glazed pots. We keep them clean with fresh water. Two dishes, the hidden one and one we can see easily from the kitchen, are close to the house, three others, smaller, balance on upright logs near bushes for cover. On the South Forty, three much-used baths are near a hose bib.

The birds don’t seem to mind if the dishes tip a little, making an uneven water level, with shallows. Most of the birds are small and stand on the flattish rocks we put in the dishes as perches; they walk down the rock’s gentle sides as if wading into a lake. Just like people going into the water, birds vary their approaches, some wade on in up to belly, others flit and hesitate.

In these warming days when the action started up again, juncos were first, and song sparrows with their beautiful speckled breasts. Towhees love the baths, make their distinct call, wait for each other to finish.

In the house, I lean down to get something from beneath the sink and look up to see a very stately robin, I imagine her large with child, such a rounded huge pale orange breast. She submerged in the water up to her breast, cocking her head in that way robins do, cautious. She stood for several of my breaths, and then quickly dipped her head, and then again and again. In between fluffing and, hard not to write joyfully, doing that fandango of shaking – drops spraying, making the musical sound of a body getting wet on purpose, a spin of the whole feathered being in desire. She stayed five or so minutes and flew off to a stub of a branch, high on a Doug Fir, to dry herself in the sun.

That seems a movement that we have completely lost – except maybe as an involuntary shudder – I wonder if it comes from the spine or from that energy channel the yogis talk about.

Some place we share.

A Pig in a Post

My bookbinder friends brought the pig back from a trip to Mexico in a winter colder than this, a year when spring refused to begin. Watching for spring indicators, needing to make the foldbooks, I was in a work stall. The pig, all folk art decorated blue, got me going.

The inhospitable weather these March days reminds me of then. Outdoors the wind chills, but indoors the sun cheers. In March I think about the sun verbs: pouring, flooding, streaming. How we are enveloped, soaked, awash with light. And we get filled up – with warmth and with energy.

Light and energy are inseparable in my mind. I’m grateful for the sun pouring in these mornings – in spite of a ten-minute hail pass-by. Blue sky to the south but it’s hailing here, collecting on car, bouncing on birdbath, rat-a-tatting on metal roof, pellets sliding down skylights. And just as quickly as begun – stopped. Sun hot on the back of my head.

Frances is an indicator of weather outside – on really bright days she sleeps in a puddle of sun on the end of the bed with her paws over her eyes, on windy days which chill the house, she tucks those paws under her breast.

Like a northern house needs to do, this one reaches for all the available light. The brightness from windows is doubled as sun streams through panes, forming grid pattern shadows on the floor. My workroom faces south and is saturated with abundant March light. Feeling rich, I shut out all but the glow through shades, to dampen the white paper glare. As the length and strength of light expands, so does capacity for work.

And – a sunbathing pig is a sign of spring.

Winter Squash Galette

We store squash on the front porch all winter in a diminishing display, colorful reminder of what’s available to cook. Just one squash left must be a sign of spring and calls for doing something special.

One definition of art is “making special.” In cooking, that can mean presentation or a fancy cake, but also baking for dinner – adding to the ordinary. Deborah’s “Winter Squash Galette” is the best of both worlds – dinner and handwork.

To bake the squash for the galette filling, Deborah just stuffs the squash with garlic cloves, separated but not chopped or even peeled. While the oven warms the kitchen I make her “Yeasted Tart Dough with Olive Oil.” The rhythms of preparing to bake please: mix wet and dry in two different sized glass bowls, combine and stir. Knead – changing sticky ingredients (including a little whole wheat) into something elastic and alive with potential.

While the dough rises, I cook onions, adding 12 sage leaves from the garden. Squeeze the cooked garlic into the squash, add a little Gruyere, and combine with the squash.

This is forgiving dough, I roll it out with the old wooden rolling pin and form a “rustic circle” on the bottom of a cookie sheet. Plop the squash mix in the middle of the dough, pleat the sides up, and paint with egg yolk.

Then enjoy the house filled with fragrance – as ingredients transform in the oven.

Forming into objects – maybe that’s what I like about baking. A friend here, clever and good with her hands, offered me a piece of quiche the other night, made with flour from local wheat, a nutty, tasty treat and shaped into her perfectly fluted piecrust. That’s art for sure – both in the look of it and the gift of it.

A galette is more relaxed but it’s remarkably beautiful. Fresh out of the oven with dough puffed up, shiny and golden around warm orange filling, it looks much more complicated and time-consuming than it is. I took it to Christmas dinner this year, as a cheerful add-on for non-turkey types.

A galette makes leftovers special, too.