A Daffodil Tribute

Daffodils – a cheerful presence since January when their spiky leaves emerged in the winter garden, followed by buds and scattered early blossoms in February and a rush of brave blooms all March and April – continue to delight now, nearly May, as I carry weekly bouquets to the wee scholars’ librarian.

For the first couple of years I picked only blossoms blown over by wind, but this year I’ve filled glass vases from Goodwill with generous handfuls of the long-stemmed beauties to give away. Mellow yellow or acid yellow, it’s fun to watch people smile as they walk by them in the library. The young writer called daffodils “sunshine in my house.”

Daffodils danced and bobbed as they absorbed all sorts of nasty weather and never lost heart – perhaps that’s why their nature seems jolly and plucky to me. They grow happily here – melding so harmoniously with forest trees and newly leafed shrubs – in the front garden, the woods garden, and the bride’s garden. Daffodils ask for so little and give so much.

I have a garden writer friend who is a daffodil expert, she understands the descriptive divisions or classifications. I love to hear her pronounce the poetry of intriguing names of daffodils she grows. One evening at her house, daffodils in little vases with names like ‘Thalia,’ ‘Quail,’ and ‘Golden Echo’ lit up the center of her dining table. After she inspires me, I think that if I study them I will know my favorites and do a more selective job of ordering for the fall.

But in truth I love them all (even the ubiquitous grocery store daffodils with canary yellow blossoms which die with a butterscotch fragrance), and I enjoy the surprises that come with ordering by the hundred-fold.

Bulbs look alike before planting, but unexpected combinings result from the relationship of petal to trumpet in colors from vanilla white to egg-yolk yellow. Petal shape can be large or small, pointed or rounded. Cups can be tiny and flat, a two-inch trumpet or tiny trumpet trimmed in orange. Doubles happen – miniature ones with orange cups – even triples with dangling blossoms. A creamy-petalled daffodil has a coral-pink center. A standard yellow daffodil dresses fancy with interior petals shaped and ruffled like an orchid.

Part of my delight in the hundred mix comes from the staggered bloom time allowing such a long display. Perhaps the little fragrant ones I think of as jonquils are favorites. Their heady scent heralds the world’s quickening – through all our many months of spring.

The Pottery Fragment Frog

He’s back! Or I thought he was back – and he could be a she – but a distinctive heart-shaped mark on the back of its head identifies the familiar “pottery fragment frog.”

Recently I bumped one of the terracotta pots in the courtyard. Pathetic pots – containing only volunteers. Doug fir seedlings, a forget-me-not, and a piece of a plate occupy one pot, and every year for the last three a frog has spent its summer days behind the little chunk of pottery.

It is beautiful pottery, part of a plate from Spain, but more attractive must be access to flying food and a safe place from the wind. And familiarity. Maybe this first sighting, when I bumped the pot, came after a winter spent in nearby rocks.

Frogs are a sweet presence here with their spring singing, their freeze-in-place-at-the-sight-of-you attitude, and their beauty – electric-green or quiet-brown, and always the distinctive eye stripe of the Pacific tree frog. They range in size and color from many teeny, half-inch bright green ones to the two-inch variegated frog I found in a slatted wooden box full of garden clutter.

Plastic attracts them. A produce bag stuffed in an empty square pot became an overnight bivouac for a luscious green frog. A board must always cover the top of the watering can or frogs seek the water left in the can. Before rinsing a birdbath with water from the hose, I look – in mid-summer frogs also enjoy the water baths.

All one August a frog croak echoed from a gutter above the living room window, and we relocated to the garden the frog suctioned to an upstairs window on a stormy autumn night. Once I found a frog in the house, very brown and dry looking, under an old wooden box full of holiday dishes rarely moved – an immigrant through our lax screen door?

It’s tempting to associate the faded-looking khaki coloring with maturity. One of the wee scholars told me authoritatively that a brown frog is dry – but other experts say tree frogs can be either brown or green or a combination. And their color can change – perhaps with light intensity.

There are fewer slugs here than in early years, and I like to thank the frogs. I read that big frogs eat big slugs and small eat small. Each bed seems to have a resident frog or two, and hopefully they dine on the underage slugs, the ones not imbibing at my beer bar. This would win hero status for frogs in the garden.

In spite of beginning this with the spring appearance – now the frog is gone again. Another puzzlement, but I can’t help thinking, given the rich sounds of frog singing every night from nearby ponds (and another wonderment is how far a frog can travel), that froggy – he or she – went acourtin’. Uhhuh!

Perennials

In “One Man’s Garden” Henry Mitchell wrote: “What we loosely call spring, meaning the season in which plants grow vigorously and come to flower in a time of nice skies and warm airs is partly imaginary.”

But we’ve had a few days of “warm airs,” Mitchell’s mythical spring moments, without wind, when it really is mild and fragrant, and birds sing, sun shines. Spring, as we dream it, is upon the land. When the afternoon thermometer rises over 70° in the sun, I sit in the shade of the little cherry tree, and can practically feel the soil warming up and plants growing.

Perennials are those growing plants. Washington offers many evergreen varieties – but I’m thinking of the completely-gone-in-winter-plants. Plants with lives so different from ours – each year is a new beginning, no matter the death in the fall. That’s known in some parts as a miracle, and the ability to go winter dormant and then resurrect into new life, even bigger and stronger does seem miraculous.

Returning perennials change the character of the garden for the coming season. Just in time their growth covers what’s often called “unsightly foliage” – bulb leaves completing their cycle for next year’s flowering. Beginnings of asters and rudbeckia reveal enough to say, “I’m alive!” And this month the real workhorses like nepeta and geranium grew from nothing to 18 inches of encouragement.

This garden is mostly about ordinary plants, but I have a few perennials from Far Reaches Farm that lift my heart in spring. (Far Reaches is a specialty nursery nearby, owned by two intrepid modern-day plant hunters who search the world over for unusual perennials. They raise plants from seed, and then offer them for sale, with the most literate and entertaining labels in plantdom. http://www.farreaches.com)

Seasonally damp and mostly shady spots present particular garden problems – or opportunities. In one corner of the courtyard a white skunk cabbage from Far Reaches – an Asian version of our familiar plant, but smelling good rather than bad – blooms in spite of a soaking for months on end in winter.

In the opposite corner, waterlogged from a downspout, the tall spear-shaped leaves of a variegated iris reappear next to Cardiocrinum giganteum – leaves already six inches wide and a foot long foretell the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk future of this lily.

Perennials returning is not a miracle gardeners take for granted (as if one could take a miracle for granted), survival is not guaranteed. Perennial plants re-emerging in the spring signal happiness with location, a willing acceptance of place.

Bracken

Fiddleheads of bracken fern unfurl in imperceptible increments as their stems grow taller this month. I welcome bracken ferns as they open and by summer they cover, as my mother would have said, “a multitude of sins.” They act as transition thicket where they surround upright columns of Doug fir, decorate edges along fields, and complicate with pattern, patches of wild rose and salal. But I know bracken has an ambivalent reputation.

Gertrude Jekyll had patience with and fondness for bracken. From her I learned how it is I can see, from upstairs in the house, the unmistakable texture of bracken far back in a small patch of impenetrable forest. She writes: “The height to which the bracken grows is a sure guide to the depth of soil. On the poorest, thinnest ground it only reaches a foot or two; but in hollow places where leaf-mould accumulates and surface soil has washed in and made a better depth, it grows from six feet to eight feet high, and when straggling up through bushes to get to the light a frond will sometimes measure as much as twelve feet.”

Richard Mabey tells us in “Flora Britannica” that a 13-foot tall bracken was recorded in an English forest. For his cultural flora, a book not just about plants but about their use by people, Mabey listened to the stories of regular people, farmers and preachers who have lived with and used these plants all their lives. He devotes pages to bracken, quoting folks who employ it as bedding for animals, as mulch, or as packing material.

One of the first things the wordsmith said to me when we met was that gardeners in Washington often don’t like bracken, it can be as Mabey says “abundant and aggressive.” It would be hard to argue with what is a native plant here (and most everywhere in the world).

And impossible for me to argue with its beauty – either now with its head and arms offered up to spring sun, or in green summer, feathery finery trembling in a breeze (always green no matter the drought). Best of all, I enjoy the sienna-hued collapse of crispy bracken in the fall as it swoons over a stand of salal along the driveway, for all the world like a planned display.

Bracken is “toxic to all animals” according to Mabey – and he and Pojar are both quick to point out these are not fiddleheads to eat in the spring. But they are fiddleheads to admire.



Everyday Tacos – Carrots, Leeks, Tulips,too

Aah, the CSA is back! A brief hiatus in deliveries while winter ended and spring began (the farmer building and planting for a new season) led to a near breakdown in cooking here. Certainly led to a lack of inspiration.

I’ve become so gratefully accustomed to the regular routine of receiving what seems a gift box of food to organize meals. Without it, and always under the influence of trying to eat more locally, it’s been slim pickings. Those authors, like Barbara Kingsolver, who try to eat locally for a year, hit this low spot in April (as our ancestors did) – early for new crops and late for stored vegetables.

In the weeks without delivery, we’ve been reduced to a lot of everyday tacos – our staple, mostly pull-out-of-the-cupboard meal. It varies with what is to hand and includes the usual basics – beans, cheese, tortillas, lettuce – maybe frozen corn or peppers, leftover vegetables, salsa – an avocado from south of here, tomatoes in season. It’s a whatever, whenever sort of meal.

The blog’s bean project improved everyday tacos by leading to batch after batch of black beans (recipe compliments of Martha Stewart, of all people, sent by a friend and reader). It’s totally simple – an overnight soaking followed by cooking (sometimes for a very long, slow time) with quartered onions, smashed garlic, and a spoonful of vinegar (add jalapeno peppers if you want). The beans are such a treat – good that night and as leftovers – and it’s easy to freeze a batch for yet another night of everyday tacos.

I love and appreciate the localness of the food our farmer provides, but what I didn’t think about till this little break is how dependant I am on her energy, her stimulus to get me going, focus my meal thinking.

These first deliveries combine stored vegetables and brand new salad mix. They’ve contained leeks, potatoes, stir-fry greens, carrots (stored in the ground and sweet from winter frost) – and field-grown tulips. Often recipes the farmer provides catch my eye – like a recipe for Carrot-Leek Oven Pancake – not something I would have come up with on my own, but I’m eager to try.

I’m thinking the black beans would work with a carrot leek oven pancake.  With tulips on the table.

To Love a Garden

Besieged by a spring storm, which roared down the strait from the Pacific hurling fir cones at the house like rocks from a catapult, I watched the rain that followed and thought how I like rain (which is good). Wetness darkens the various grays of tree trunks, gravel, and rocks to the same value, and ties the garden and forest together.

It’s a dramatic but temporary moment – like when the sun lights up some one part of the courtyard. It’s not the high and full sun of summer now, but sun broken up by tree trunks. And light through tall trees, especially filtered by mist, looks like light streaming through high cathedral windows.

Looking from indoors at the courtyard garden, I wondered how many of the plants could have been found in medieval times. Not so random as it seems, I was asking myself if I could link this garden and permaculture to my fondness for medieval things – for a sheltered garden, an old garden. Also I wondered why I need to do that.

Here in this beautiful wildness, which might well be enough in itself, I need a way to justify a garden, a way to unite plants to the surroundings. Some gardens, like my old one, know their flavor, their kind easily – here, carving a little chunk from the bigger and more important natural world challenges me.

The fence between the Buffalo and the big house defines the garden – in art making you’d call it a restraint – and in a way it replicates exactly how gardening began, in enclosed spaces, protected places holding out the unknown.

The four-square shape came about in much the way medieval monks might have designed a garden – necessary paths crossing the garden divided it into four beds. Such gardens, in spite of their inherent formality, adapt well to permaculture design in part because each bed has distinct micro-climates – south-facing slopes and shadier backsides.

Now in spring, the beds are full of the flowers depicted up the sides of pages of Books of Hours. I can imagine the little fruit trees, hellebore, old tulips, quince blossoms and bluebells as part of a garden in castle or cloister. And flowers of rosemary, scilla, Spanish hyacinth, and forget-me-nots – are all the same blue as the madonna’s gown in a Piero della Francesca painting.

In this experience of writing and drawing for the blog, I am trying to figure out and understand my place here. “Her spirits rose…” is so much a record keeping of the moment, not the story of making a garden and living happily ever after, but exploring how to love a garden, how to make it one’s own.

Dark-Eyed Junco

The parents of my best friend in high school taught us to sing out “No bears, no bears, no bears!” as we walked down the trail to their lakeside cabin in Alaska. (I learned other things, too, in those summer days at the cabin: like the pleasures of a stack of old and musty New Yorkers, dollar-size sourdough pancakes, and reading a book while drifting in a rowboat.)

I hear echoes of that bear warning when I call out “No birds, no birds!,”  as I open the door to the courtyard to let Frances out.

Birds rarely come in the Quad garden, but juncos like to use our structures for their purposes. Our first year one nested against the house in a hose reel. We yellow-taped off the area and watched her feed tiny babies with always-open mouths.

When they hear my warning, juncos scatter with a flash of easily recognizable, fanned-out white tail feathers.

The bears must too.