Dry January

In a different context there is much buzz about dry January, but the weather gods did not participate. And as payback for the rain and freezing temperatures that Sweet B and her family endured here over the Christmas holiday, during a California mid-January trip we watched rivers of rain waterfall off horizontal gutters day after day.  

We dodged the deluge to have fun anyway. A visit to a train museum delighted about-to-turn three Sweet Brother. We rode a tiny train around the park, climbed inside giant steam engines, and walked back and forth on real train tracks for a very long time. Among Sweet Brother’s passions, trains are second only to construction vehicles.

Then we came home to a dry and cold last week of January.

When we first came down here after all those years of real winter in Alaska, I expected spring to happen quickly as it does there – flip a switch and the growth (and gardening frenzy) begins. But, because the beginnings are so welcome in January, I’ve come to love the glacial pace of spring here. Daylight improves, the sunset is after five p.m., and mornings often hold early promise, even if they succumb to hovering clouds that force the day back to gray gloom.

But I spotted a snowdrop just after the new year, the tips of daffodils already emerge through last fall’s fallen leaves, and fragrant bushes stop me in my tracks. Most specially sarcococca – which I can never pronounce – but love its common name, fragrant sweet box. For it is fragrant – now it seems that every street presents a sarcococca offering – anonymous green bushes most of the year, the fragrance of their tiny blossoms surrounds me on early morning walks.

     The local florist does its porch proud all year long, and I often step up on the porch to see what seasonal flowers they’ve arranged. Now, in this gray time, a few hyacinth and pots and containers of tiny blooming jonquils cluster around a blast of painted color. Most welcome!

Gardens, Books, Unease

Does life right now seem a sort of “Choose Your Own Anxiety” game? Spin the arrow inside one’s brain, and settle on worries about the spread of coronavirus or the (now diminished) smorgasbord of candidates confusing efforts to defeat the incumbent. And then, another set of frets (rightly louder) provide real-life concerns like children or work or health – things one might do something about.

I try and interrupt the head spin with books. So I was glad to get Penelope Lively’s new book, “Life in the Garden.” I have been looking forward to it – a memoir by a favorite writer structured around gardens – her own and literary. Describing her tiny London garden now, and the limitations imposed by a chronic back problem, she says, “This is old-age gardening, and like all other aspects of old age, it creeps up on you, and has to be faced down and dealt with.”

In my favorite parts of this book (aside from the beautiful cover and black and white illustrations inside) Lively considers “gardening as an element of fiction.” She writes, “This is a book in which fictional gardens act as prompts for consideration of what gardens and gardening have been for us, over time.”

And I loved it that she reminded me of books I hadn’t read including her own novel, “Consequences,” a perfect book for escaping the present. Beginning just before the hardships and tragedies of World War II, it opens with a romance that echoes through generations. It ends in this century with changes wrought by modernity and a satisfying linking of the generations.

I really care about Lively’s characters – and relish their observations (which seem like Lively’s voice). On books in a library: “they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation.” A library would be noisy, “with a deep collective growl coming from the core collection…, and the bleats and cries of new opinion, new fashion, new style.”

Such a pleasure to read this book, and to surface and realize that a daffodil, ignoring our national discontent, blooms in my tiny garden.




You miss a lot in this situation – walking, planning trips around walking, the grocery store (never thought I’d miss the grocery store), being a help rather than helped, but above all, I miss Lady B, Sweet Baby, and Baby Brother! In all their lives I’ve never gone so long without seeing them. Their parents try hard to keep us up-to-date with the young lives, FaceTime and videos help, but still.

Last week Sweet Baby turned four attending a birthday party for a friend in the morning and having a party with friends and family in the evening. She now has a big girl bed, and a cradle next to it for her favorite doll, Baby. For her birthday, I managed to make little pillows from pillowcases her great-great-grandmother left for Poppa Jim’s “bride.” When we spoke the next day, Sweet Baby proudly showed me sleeping arrangements and suggested I could come on Thursday – or maybe in September – revealing developing knowledge of days and months. In my favorite videos, she “reads” books aloud – or lately sings the pages!

Baby Brother is always willing to talk to us – especially to Poppa Jim – usually while eating dinner. He explains the meal and speaks of dinosaurs and heavy equipment – he would love to be here and watch the daily comings and goings in the gravel pit behind us.

We heard that during an illness this winter, he took to routinely waking up at night and crying out – “Momma, Daddy come quick!” When recovered he was encouraged to stop calling to his parents at night, an edict he took seriously, because that night he tried “Winnie, Cora – come quick!” – no word on whether the canines responded.

And Lady B – I have seen photos of her on the north face of Mount Alyeska, her little body planted firmly, skis edged, the valley spread far below. I’m told she can ski the entire mountain, including a famous and steep mogul patch! She turned seven after Christmas – such a magic age of competence and exploration – always her strengths. I love the photos of her deep in a book reading to herself now, or sitting with her dad and brother at a restaurant – eyes fixed on the pages of “Baby Bears.” One day she updated me on her latest thoughts about super heroes – but that’s been a while, and I miss a good natter at the top of the stairs!

Hope glimmers! The Alaskans are coming at Easter, and maybe Sweet Baby in May. And I just registered both girls for summer camps here for different weeks in July. Lady B will go to Sewing Camp (a great but surprise choice – I thought she’d choose mountain biking camp), and Sweet Baby will attend the Little Athletes Sports and Fitness Academy with other small fry for a couple of hours each day (her first choice, Troll Camp, the wrong dates).

No better incentive to me – to bend and bend and be ready!



Ubiquitous Flowers

That’s what a reader called daffodils when I posted them on Valentine’s Day. She’s right, especially the sturdy yellow ones (the color of dandelions, not everyone loves them), and especially on Bainbridge Island where the commenter lives. There, plantings have naturalized along roadsides and at intersections all over the island. These daffodils, bunched buds from the grocery store, opened on my drawing table. Daffodils begin to bloom in the garden –  welcome in their ubiquity.









October Garden

Aah – sun! These sunny October days weight the year differently here. Spring is long and cold, but autumn is also long and sometimes surprisingly warm – at least warm-in-a-windbreaker warm.

On the first morning back from Victoria I found the garden  still so beautiful in its rustic way. The hop vine climbs up the Buffalo deck to the roof, covered with bracts and blossoms with their piney fragrance. The deer have nibbled a fountain-shaped topiary from the Sambucus out front. The first blueberry bush to blossom has gone all carmine red – the last one offers final berries. Lavender needs cutting back, but cosmos, calendula, and crocosmia bloom with vigor. So do yellow black-eyed susans, blue asters, and nasturtium. “Autumn Joy” sedum lives up to its name.

I make a mental list of things to do: put away the umbrella (if the orb weaver is gone). Harvest the dirt from the new molehills close to the garden – I’ll shovel it up for a garden bed and stick a twig of mint into the hole (local advice for discouraging moles). I like to think about their subterranean lives parallel to ours, but Frances isn’t keen to share her space, and they’re at risk in the courtyard.

Critters have been about. A beautiful coyote – interested I suppose in the rabbit population on the south forty – stopped to stare at me as I drove in. (Coyotes often do that – is it a look of defiance or curiosity?)

I watched a racoon walk up the front path, dressed in that good-looking bandit regalia, big body and little legs ending in clawed paws. It seemed to be on familiar turf, turning its head back and forth and sniffing. Maybe it’s the one that uncovers the yogurt cup and takes out the slugs? (Do they eat live slugs or just dead ones marinated in beer?) We don’t see raccoons often, but last year I interrupted a mother attempting to herd her three kits up the front walk. She stood still but the babies scattered to the nearest tree – climbing up and peeking their masked faces at me from different sides of the trunk.

Vita Sackville-West wrote that autumn is really the most beautiful season of the year, adding that it is only as a portent that it troubles (she often compared the seasons to our human lifespan). The trouble foretold used to be the coming Alaska winter for me. October was my most dreaded month of the year – no holiday cheer or real snow yet – but often cold and very dark.

Now October feels like a gift of foggy or crisp mornings and sunny afternoons – for hikes in fall foliage, and for tasks (including maybe soon – the roofer) like planting bulbs on a sunny fall day.

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.


“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.

Daffodils by the Bench by the Road

A fragment of fence runs along our driveway where it turns off the road. Last spring a good carpenter built a bench there for us. It’s simple and attached to the fence.

In Anchorage I used to walk with the dog in the downtown neighborhood and appreciate the house with a bench as part of its fence. It seemed a welcoming spot, “a gift to the street,” a fence with a use besides keeping out.

Daffodils bloom by the bench this month. And daffodils star this month, fully emerged now they trumpet their yellows with notes mild and brassy, large and small, plain and multi-petalled. Because deer ignore them, I plant them anywhere, and in the years we’ve been coming here, they spread. From those collections of hundreds, the exotic eventually fail, but the stalwarts return, and they shout greetings from positions along the driveway and standing in clusters up by the house.

I drew a daffodil on our sign inviting people to sit on the bench, and tacked it under the Wildlife Habitat and No Pesticides signs. The sign says: “Sit if you can and enjoy the sunshine, the birds, and the trees – and pretty good cell phone reception.”

It took a while to catch somebody using it, but one day last summer walking to the mailbox, I saw a loose black dog at the end of the driveway, and then realized he belonged to folks sitting in the sun on the bench. One dark night as we drove in, the headlights picked up two brothers, grown-up inventor brothers, one visiting and one a neighbor, sitting companionably side-by-side. When I bought a handmade wreath from another neighbor to hang for the winter by the bench, she said: “Oh I love the bench.” And at a neighborhood picnic, a woman down the road told me she took a fine photo of her dog seated there.

I’m absurdly cheered by those moments – happy for that opportunity we made from a barren strip. I have fantasies about holiday lights in their season and drought-tolerant plantings by the bench. For now it’s a cheery daffodil moment at the end of a country road.