“This Place Is Special”

January 29, 2011

Autotroph Woman has nothing on me.

Greg again taught Master Gardener class yesterday (this time, I read the correct chapters) and began by asking the question, “Why do we plant flowers?”

The designer and artist in me knows exactly why I do it and I answered, “Color!” He looked at me, very surprised and said, “I never get that answer. It’s the right answer, but I never get it. I get all kinds of answers, but never that right answer. Very good!”

I tried not to feel smug.

I failed.

Greg showed us photographs of gardens, public and private, and mentioned how Oak Brook Mall has always made horticultural a key component of their philosophy. He talked of walkways lined with flowers, of impatiens and marigolds, of borders and cottage gardens. He told us that flowers are a signal, a shout, a proclamation that “this place is special.” This place, he said, is loved and respected and welcoming. “This place is special.”

This, to me, was the really fun stuff. On the slate were annuals (plants that germinate, grow, bloom and die all in one growing season), perennials (plants that emerge, grow, bloom, die back to the ground and then repeat that for at least 3 years) and roses (a rose).

Greg began with lessons in planting seeds, starting plants indoors and I found out so many reasons why I’ve failed at this time and time again. One of the most critical elements, he explained, is warm soil, so a heating pad/plant mat is vital to successful, uniform sprouts.

Never knew about that, so I had mediocre sprouting at best.

Moisture needs to be constant and uniform. They need 14-16 hours of light each day, but no special bulbs are required. I started thinking that this really shouldn’t be that difficult. It sounds like I can make a few tweaks in my methods and I could fill the basement with seedlings. I started picturing more exotic varieties of marigolds, impatiens and zinnias, all grown in my basement.

Then Greg got more specific. Lighting needs to be tight, right on top of the seedlings, and moved up as the plants grow. Hmmm…I’d have to put lights on chains to move them up and down. Planting material, potting “soil”, containers, everything has to be perfectly clean and sterile, equipment preferably washed in a light bleach solution before you begin or you encounter the biggest problem, one have I experienced with every single effort, “damping off”, a fungus that constricts the stems at the bottom and chokes all the seedlings. (I always thought they needed more water.) The seedlings may have to be transplanted to cells and then they must be hardened off, taken in and out of the house to acclimate to the cooler temperatures and night time drops, before planting or I could build a cold frame if I don’t have a wagon.

Sunrise Greenhouse looks really good from right here.

Germinating seeds at this level is not for me, certainly not at this time in my life. I’ll throw my beans and peas and spinach and lettuce in the veggie garden when the soil warms up and let nature have at it, with a little help from a soaker hose. I’ll go to Sunrise and trust in their forward thinking to provide me with the latest varieties and newest colors.

Greg also talked about soil preparation, using Round Up to kill whatever vegetation is in your preferred location and then tilling in the soil. He mentioned a company in Palos that will deliver yards of garden soil mix, a blend of compost, torpedo sand and soil. My “someday” garden on the back of our yard started becoming a reality as mind’s eye laid the border with a garden hose, saw the grass turning brown and rented a tiller. With all the plant material that has to be divided every year, with my ‘Miss Kim’ on the move, this may indeed be the summer to make this happen.

He ran us through a wonderful schematic to help calculate a continuous bloom in your perennial bed – what a helpful tool! He said coral bells, heucheras, will be the next hosta. He ran us through some of the All-American Selections for 2011 and 2012, including a huge orange marigold called ‘Moonsong’.

While I felt that germination was harder than I could imagine, the roses seemed to be almost easier. I learned that the first hybrid rose was created in 1867 and roses before that period are known as OGR or “Old Garden Roses.” There are species roses, which are climbers and ramblers – your “wild” roses. There are also Hybrids and Shrub Roses, like those ubiquitous Knock-Out Roses planted in front of all homes built in the last five years (I think that’s a law).

Greg talked of both blooms and foliage as having wonderful fragrances and frankly, had me hooked. The woman next to me, who is very pleasant but quiet, said during break that she grows roses and has a great deal of success. I know the Damn Rabbits love them – they ate three tea rose bushes down to the ground and killed them completely our first summer here. I’m thinking a climber on the arbor, something old-fashioned and with a perfume that will saturate the summer nights.

Greg mentioned that landscaping principles have changed over the last decades. In the past, the front of the home was formal, with closely clipped evergreens and green, unbroken lawn. Flowers in the front were frowned upon. The backyard was the private space, the place where color could run riot, splash across the yard.

Now, there is color and blossoms and blooms all around the house. In many ways, my front yard, with its full sun exposure, has more color and excitement than the back. I agree that flowers declare “this place is special.” They make a house look happy, cared for and loved.

Perception and Reality

January 27, 2011

Often, your perception of reality is skewed by time. Eliza once told me that her room in our first house was much bigger than her room here. Because my mind holds onto obscure data and the dimensions of her former room certainly fits into that category, I measured out 9 x 12 within her present room. “Whoa,” she said, “why does it seems like it was so much bigger?”

She forgets that she herself was a great deal smaller, like Alice growing with the “Drink Me” bottle shrinking in her hand.

My perception of my garden tends to be like that as well. For me, I remember the things that didn’t work; the brussel sprouts and green peppers that were shadowed and stunted by the zucchini and watermelon, the smaller impatiens that struggled to catch up to the stronger plants on the other side of the bed, the hostas and astilbes that didn’t leap up like I’d wanted.

A few weeks ago, the Chicago Flower and Garden Show put out a call for photographic entries. With literally thousands of photographs now at my disposal, I want to enter. So I went back through all my posts, starting in the spring, and looked at all the photographs day by day, picture by picture, looking for The Image – you’re only allowed one entry per person per category.

As I passed through March, April and got into May, I realized something I’d never really appreciated before. Duds and unexpected bare spots not withstanding, non-performers and disappointments ignored, the garden is simply lovely. I didn’t realize how lush and green, how full and rich, how colorful and prolific it really is in mid-summer. It is easy to forget the glory when you watch the slow descent.

Today it is snowing, beginning with dusty powder, turning to fat flakes and back to powder again. Flakes filter through the finch feeder, as if someone filled the sock with snow instead of seed. Snow hits the pin oak leaves with a tick, creating a hissing sound that fills the backyard. It ticks onto the clematis leaves, weighing them down, dipping them low enough to soak my hair as I pass through the arbor.

The front of the house is spread with a white sheet, clean, clear of footprints or tracks or blowing leaves. It is perfectly white, perfectly blank and surely will not stay this way for long. There is a tiny hole in the snow that covers the peony bed; perhaps a blip of warmth from a stone or maybe one of Clarence’s cousins. On the side of the house, I see brand new tracks, made just moments before, by a Damn Rabbit or two that sat huddled in the yard, letting the snow mound up around them. There is a bare patch of grass within the snow and it is scuffed and scratched. I have disturbed them.

Good.

In this whiteness, this sweep of nothing, there is little green. There are no buds, no new shoots, no blossoms. The landscape is brown and white. It can be difficult to remember the bounty when everything is barren. So I am very grateful for this photography contest. Even if my image is deemed unworthy, however trite this may sound, I have still won.

Once a week, an email from Better Homes & Gardens lands in my mailbox and offers me advice. It could be about organizing my kitchen, decorating my bathroom or most importantly, growing things in my garden. There are garden designs, there are suggestions about shade or sun perennials, hardscape ideas – all kinds of information about anything outdoors.

If something catches my eye, I click on the link and scan through the information. Sometimes it’s very useful, such as when they posted plans for butterfly gardens and one happened to be almost exactly the size and shape of the bed I was planning. I downloaded it, printed it and that plan turned out to be a thorough blueprint for my butterfly bed. Of course, as there were tweaks that needed to be made as asters were plotted all over the original bed. The Damn Rabbits don’t give asters a snowball’s chance in hell in my yard. (BH & G is also the source for a detailed plan for a long, rather narrow sun bed that will be perfect as a division between our yard and Gwen’s yard. The plan sits in my 3-ring binder for “someday.”)

This time, the email included a link to “Perennials You Don’t Have To Water” and I clicked. I passed through Lavender and Yarrow and then oh my goodness. There they were. The yellow flowers that come up every year around my pond, those happy, happy, bursts of sunshine.

I have gone through book after book, year after year, trying to identify these. I’ve never seen them in anyone else’s yard, never in a nursery – they have been the Ultimate Mystery Plant. Last spring, the gardener at Sunrise looked at the picture I brought and dubbed it “Anathera.” Well, I should say that “anathera” is what I heard. I’ve searched and searched for it for nearly a year now. I’ve done more book research, googled seventeen different spellings and still no luck. I figured I misheard her.

Turns out that it wasn’t my ears, it was my visual perception of how it was spelled. This flower, which BH&G told me is know as sundrop or suncup – how appropriate – is named Oenothera. So I googled the proper spelling and lo and behold! Photos by the hundreds, even a Wiki article!

Well, I’ll be darned. I find out that this flower, an evening primrose, is very common in the Southwest and the Rockies rather than the Midwest, which explains why no one else seems to have these in their landscaping around here. What I can’t figure out is how they got here to begin with. These are “shared flowers,” originally gifted from Karen’s garden to my mom’s garden in the late 1970’s. Karen was the original perennial gardener, digging plants up from anywhere – the side of the road, ditches, you name it – whenever she saw a beautiful bloom.

Were the seeds carried by birds and just happened to land in the perfect place for germination – and then at the perfect time Karen passed by and dug them up? How perfect is that.

We’ve called them buttercups, “those yellow flowers” and “Karen’s flowers.” My mom and I have always wondered what they really were – we knew they had to have a name. Now, more than 30 years later, we know it. It’s like meeting a new friend all over again.

Sunshine and Blue Skies!

January 21, 2011

Leaving the house this morning, I see the full moon setting on the west and the rising sun red on the east. The sky is robin’s egg blue and the clouds are few.

What a great day to go to Master Gardening!

I am tinged with a scoop of guilt; I have not read the entire chapters on diagnosis and disease. With the flurry of the weekend and the scattered thinking of this week, Friday arrived before I expected it. I am also running just a little late; a client commitment early this morning.

Into the classroom just as the speaker is being introduced and I immediately see that my tardy arrival has decimated my opportunity for prime seating. Oh crud. I take a lousy seat, determined not to let THIS happen again. Oh double crud. I am right behind Autotroph Woman.

My flusteredness (is that a word?) is now increasing; we are not learning about diagnosis and disease today. It seems this is the vegetable and fruit session. Really? What the heck? I consult the reading list and see it’s in chapter order. I consult the syllabus and see that it is not. Really? It’s like having two different filing systems in an office!

I take a breath, try to shake off the apprehension from being now completely unprepared, tie my shoes (with double socks today) – I had to change from business Rebecca to MG Rebecca in the bathroom – and find the chapter on vegetables.

Russ, our vegetable and fruit expert, has just a bit of a country twang – hardly noticeable, but jusssstt there. He is funny and warm and obviously has a great deal of respect and comradery with Nancy the coordinator. They banter about habits and obsessions. Russ shares that he is on a eternal mission to grow man-sized pumpkins. He had success his first year, he says, and then never again, so he continues to chase that elusive dream. (Ah! In your grasp and then gone – where? how? WHY – oh dear god, WHY?)

Soon, I am adjusted to the “surprise” in topic and the funky seat (well, almost). I’m also feeling halfway intelligent again, as I seem to be familiar with vegetable growing. My experiments and experiences this summer taught me the vast majority of this material. We learn about planning a plot (raised beds are preferred – point for me!). We learn about amending soil (lots of organic matter, consider lasagna composting – ding!). We learn about setting seedlings started inside (not me, wasn’t educated enough last spring) and planting purchased plants (oh, that’s me, alright). I learn my veggie garden is not too small, as I had feared, but that the average garden is about 900 square feet (wow – that is 30′ x 30′ – a darn big garden!).

Only 25% of vegetable garden do it organically – astonishing. I thought that would be much higher. Ellen the Compost Zealot has not gotten to everyone yet.

I learn you can grow eggplant in Zone 5 (definitely trying that this year). Ah, oops. Slowly, I realize I’m getting a need-to-have frenzy, much like the feeling I get when poring over those mail order catalogs. I think about who will actually eat eggplant in my house – and then decide I need it anyway. I can only control that urge so much.

Bramble fruits are discussed; gooseberries (I think of Snow White and her pie for Grumpy), raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Nancy mentions how the blueberries need for acidic soil can be solved by sinking a container of appropriately pHed soil into the ground. That way, you’re not affecting a whole plot of earth and when you want to lose the blueberries, you can easily lose the soil. I start thinking of where I could sink those. And guess what? Those espalier apple trees are discussed and pruning methods for grapes on an espalier are explained. (Is this a sign from the garden gods that I’m supposed to plant grapes this year?) Russ makes a comment about how it’s good to have a large woody and I have to put my head down to keep from laughing.

The double socks, t-shirt and heavy sweater are still not enough. I will bring foot warmers next week, wear a turtleneck, a sweatshirt and a hat. I get my scarf and wrap it around my neck. It doesn’t really help.

We leave about an hour early today – this is not as complicated as botany – and the sky is cerulean, steel, ultramarine, cotton candied with wisps of cirrus clouds. Even though it is brutally, dangerously cold, I pull on my plaid hat and head outside. The afternoon sun slants across the garden. The snowflakes mottle the ice on the pond, with pin oak leaf bonuses frozen in place. A single coneflower seed juts from a seed head, holding on for dear life, afraid of the unknown. The mums are straw, the clematis tiny white feathers, competing with that snow powder. I see clearly on an accidental Christmas tree where the brown needles line the inner trunk. My fingers in their thermal gloves get colder and colder, until I can’t feel the tips anymore. I think this means I have had enough. I think about all the things I can plant in the spring – and all the things I learned from last summer.

I really like what Russ said, “I don’t have failures. I have things I won’t do again.”

Hope Arrives In the Mailbox

January 20, 2011

Bitterly cold, frozen fingers, chilly toes, cold nose, blankets upon blankets upon the couch. I am  not walking through the garden today. While one would imagine that the brief bursts of sunshine would give you a quick bask of warmth, they are deceptive, deceitful and just plain evil. It is no warmer in the sun than not.

And then Tony brings in the mail, and along with it, a real, true, enormous burst of warm, yellow rays. The plant and seed catalogs have started to arrive!

After dinner, I sit on the couch, wrapped in a fleece blanket, and flip through the Pages Of Promise. The fantasies begin.

Do we really need any front lawn? Because look at these peonies. And this beautiful sedum! We could do a rose garden right in the middle of the lawn, in that wonderful full sun exposure. The names are romantic, like Senior Prom or Helen Hayes, and majestic, like American Beauty and Victory, and poetic like Climbing Peace and Artic Flame. Think of the perfume, wafting to the porch on a warm summer evening!

Do we really need space for bean bag playing? Because I think we need at least five of these string bean varieties. We eat string beans, right? You like string beans, I tell myself. There are big tomatoes, small tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, purple tomatoes. We need one of each! We could double – oh, gosh, triple – the size of the veggie garden now. Then we’d have room for asparagus too! Broccoli! How about Broccoli?

Everblooming lilacs would make a fragrant, colorful fence between Gwen and us. She would enjoy it too. We could get these new weglias and incorporate the vegetable garden into a whole new bed! Wait! Evergreens too – boxwood – I love boxwood! Those peonies would work here too, come to think of it.

Couldn’t we do an espalier with apple trees, or OOOO! PEAR trees! between Gwen and us? It would be green and leafy and UNIQUE in the garden. It wouldn’t interfere with bean bags. WAIT! GRAPES! We could put grapes there too – and make our own wine!

Strawberries!! Oh, my goodness, LOOK at these strawberries! Red and juicy and we love strawberries – we eat them by the pounds every summer! We can put these in too! We’d need the June variety and the everbearing too, so we can enjoy them all summer long. Let’s put them right where – well – now – where could we put those?

I begin to come to earth, the garden space that grew to acres in my mind shrinking back to actual size and enter reality with a little bump. For a moment, the fleece blanket was golden sunshine, the double socks my gardening shoes. For a moment, I was out there planning, digging, planting and growing. For a moment, I forgot about wind chill, cold advisories and ice warnings. Spring arrived in the mail today and I really enjoyed the moment.

And sooner than I think, all that will be true.

Promise, personified

Emulating the Doves

January 19, 2011

A full moon this evening, big and round and winter-crisp bright. Nary a cloud in this cold sharpness; the dusk is bathed in blue.

Outside, I need a flash which throws a bright light on everything.

A dove is startled – and she startles me – by my first photograph. She whirrs into the air and then lights in agitation in the shade bed under the pin oak. I am surprised by her very presence, as they are more daylight birds and I haven’t seen them in weeks. When I creep closer to make a photograph, and then another, she tolerates me only so far and then whistles onto the frozen pond fountain. She cannot settle.

I know how she feels. I have not settled this week either.

This evening completes Dominic’s third day on campus, in a space of his own. Monday and Tuesday were filled with stressed phone calls, but with a vital, earth-shattering difference. Talk centered around wanting to be a part of things, of how long it would take to feel comfortable, of normal everyday getting-used-to-a-new-situation. He has not panicked, he has not said he could not make it, he does not want to come home. He is lonely, he is ill at ease, but he is not leaving.

The dove flies up again, to the top of the fence, where she is joined by her mate. Both watch me in the cold; her neck stretched, his huddled against the frigid air. I flash and flash and flash, trying to make an effective, satisfying photograph. Finally, they have had all the stress they can take and trill into the air, up, up and away.

The Faith rock is warming through the snow, melting a circle to expose its message to the waning light. It is solid and real and settled.

Today, Dominic called to talk of discovering lacrosse players in his building, of planning to play basketball with kids from Biology, of walking to class and feeling like he’s part of something.

I can settle now.

Fresh Air

January 16, 2011

Sunday morning and Dominic is topping off his packing.

We are all fraught with anxiety, except for Eliza. The dining room is slowly emptying its boxes and bags and duffels into the cars. I am on hyper drive inside, so take a much-needed walk into the cold, crisp air.

It is just beginning to snow – a powder of flakes, a sprinkle of white. I circle the garden, rather blind to what I’m seeing, hoping for calm “weather” for Dominic all day today. The snow falls a little faster, a little thicker and I breathe in and out, sucking in cold, blowing out warmth. I’m not very interested in sedum right now, in snowflakes, in ice or in evergreens.

By the time I wander to the front, I feel a little calmer, a little more confident. The fresh air and light (not sunshine, god forbid that there would be sunshine) are helping, the cold piercing through the miasma of worry.

The snow falls thicker yet. Now I have another thing to worry about – driving up north in a snowstorm.

He has come so far and this is such a great test. In my mind, I know he is ready. In my heart, I hope that is true.

The Dirt on Soil

January 16, 2011

I walked into Master Gardening Friday and found I was not the only one who was unhappy with their seat last week. The whole room had a slightly switched-up kind of feel, and I quickly laid claim to a seat in the area I envied last week.

Ahh!! What a difference a new perspective makes! And how much more intelligent did I feel! While last week was an intense, fast-paced and blinding college-level botany course, this week had a more familiar feel. I realized I know a lot that I didn’t know I knew.

Ellen was our instructor; seemingly slightly nervous about speaking to the crowded room. She had a soft voice and gentle personality, dove-colored hair pulled back in a pony tail. She looked like the type of woman who’d go right under your radar at, say, the grocery store. Then she told us about her job. And I was dripping with envy. Among other fabulous experiences, Ellen has spent 8 years in the Virgin Islands studying soil – she is a soil scientist – who really knew there was such a thing?

What a cool job! And who knew THIS – Illinois has the most fertile soil in the world, except for parts of Siberia and because of that weather, they can’t hardly grow a damn thing. So we here are truly the breadbasket of the world. That alone I thought was worth my Friday.

This is amazing too. If I had ever thought about it before, I would have formulated the opinion that all soil world-wide is about the same age. Wrong! Tropical soils are 100,000 years old or more while Illinois soil is only 10,000-20,000 year olds, which is one of the reasons it’s so very fertile. It was formed by recent (relative to eons) glaciers that covered first almost the entire state and then the upper northeast, scraping the earth and grinding up rocks and stones and all manner of minerals. Jungles are actually very poor soils, like our deciduous forests here, because organic matter doesn’t have a chance to get worked into the soil. Who knew?!

I learned about clay and silt and sand, about nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. I learned about oxygen and water levels, how to analyze a soil to determine whether it is clay loam or sandy loam. I learned that when we dug trench behind the berm and filled it with river rock to help move the standing water into the sewer drain, we actually built a “French drain.” And no one told us how to do that – we figured that one out all by ourselves!

Ellen explained inorganic fertilizers and was careful to let us know that plants don’t and can’t differentiate between man-made chemicals and manure compost. But – and here is where I really like her – you could certainly tell her heart wasn’t in the chemical fertilizers. Organic amendment – compost, manure, shredded leaves, and all that wonderful stuff – not only gives you a better balance of nutrients, it also improves the soil tilth (texture). It also lit a fire in her eyes and seemed to warm the cockles of her little heart. We bonded at that moment, although she is unaware.

I learned that my present compost bin is really not that effective, which explains why nothing much is happening out there, even though it’s been undisturbed for months now. I am now inspired to pitch those rather useless rain barrels – she talked about dry wells that sit under ground and slowly dissipate all the water from your gutters into the ground – and put the compost piles there. I just need 9′ x 3′ and we can make this happen so much more effectively.

I learned that even a much thicker sweater is still not warm enough in this frigid classroom.

She showed photos of mice in a compost pile and I thought with fondness of Clarence and Francine. The woman across the table shuddered in disgust and I told her, “I’ve got them in my garden and I love them. They’re so cute!” From the look she gave me, she may switch seats again next week.

I learned that my “casual composting” of throwing kitchen waste into containers and that hole behind the hostas is actually a prescribed technique called “pit composting.” And the way I built the veggie garden last year – piling up kitchen waste, covering it with pond leaves and then sealing it with new soil – is called “lasagna composting.”

Who knew that I knew all that?

 

Dead Bodies

January 13, 2011

Yesterday, I was trying to get somewhere in Orland Park using LaGrange Road and, as sometimes happens on that stretch, I found myself with an enormous semi truck bearing down on the lane I wanted to move into, so I was forced to miss my turn. As soon as I was north of Southwest Highway, I was able to make a right into Pebble Creek Nursery – or I should say, the former Pebble Creek Nursery.

This is an unfortunate example of location making a business fail, as I have passed it hundreds of time while it was open, but because of traffic patterns and turning restrictions, was never able to make a visit. If I felt that way, how many hundreds – or even thousands – of other gardeners felt the same?

I always pictured this owned by (for some reason) brothers, rangy and dark-haired, knowledgeable and kind-hearted. They always dressed in flannel shirts, even in the heat of summer (apparently it’s possible to romanticize a yellow sign). I always felt that they would be friendly and willing to help solve problems with wilted leaves, dying blooms and unproductive vegetables.

This was the very first time I had ever turned in and as soon as I did, I realized I might have gone from the frying pan (semi behind me) to the fire (unplowed parking lot full of slippery, sticky snow). The road starts high, dips low and then ends high again, dumping you onto Southwest Highway. I made it down just fine and then negotiated the upward slope to the exit. When I got to the top, I paused and looked back at the nursery.

That’s when I saw them – rows and rows of corpses and my fantasy of salt-of-earth brothers vanished with a poof. Stacked on shelving were brown, pokey dry and dead plants in their cracking pots, covered in snow, nestled in snow, like a twisted version of a spring sale. Rows of leaves ready to be crushed into powder, rows of frozen soil, lines of crackling branches – neglected and discarded living things.

Now, really, why? I understand the business was closing, I understand this was a tragedy for the owners. I understand that these were probably overlooked in the last clearance sales. But why? Why just leave them here to dry, to rot, to die? Why not give them to a school, or the Crisis Center, or the Cancer Center? A hospital? A nursing home? There was nowhere where these could have ended up, been planted, been tended?

I know they’re just plants and I know my angst goes a little far. But it’s the waste that kills me – like every time I thin catmint or hostas or chives or daylilies. I don’t want to pitch them, I want someone to plant them. I will check back there in a month or so – there is still heavy equipment. I’m thinking that even though they are unsaveable, they would be great for my compost bin.

I wonder how much dead plants go retail nowadays.

 

To-Do Lists

January 9, 2011

A dusting of snow as I peruse the garden today, frozen so cold in such little particles that it’s like sand that can be swept or brushed away – it feels dry, odd when it is made entirely of water.

There are squirrel prints in the pond.

The lilac bush, a ‘Miss Kim,’ (note the single marks – the proper way to designate a cultivar) is a perfect teaching tool to reinforce some of what I learned in the MG Botany class. I see the terminal buds on new twigs (not shoots or branches!) and then I see more and more terminal buds. I also see many twigs without buds and think this would be a perfect time to prune this back. I see lateral buds and a slew of lenticels, tiny white spots that have microscopic openings to take in and expel gases and water vapor. I cut a twig.

It also occurs to me that, now that I’ve learned about creating a root ball after a woody deciduous has been established, I could conceivably prep this in the spring for transplanting in the fall. We planted it here years ago, before the pin oak grew so large, spreading so far, casting such shade. The lilac has not flowered well in the last few years. I put this on my list of things to do in the spring – cut down into the ground in a broken ring, leaving some roots intact and cutting others to encourage fibrous growth, creating a root ball that should survive transplanting. I can put it along the property line between Gwen and I, where I’ve envisioned a long sun garden for years. Transplanting that one lilac will give me an excuse to make a whole new garden a reality, a big project for next year.

The rain barrel outside of my office is terribly skewed; it seems to be sliding into that hole we’re trying to fill with compost. That will have to be moved, evened, supported and resited in the spring. With the toe of my booth, I push compost material into the hole and then step on it to pack it down. The rain barrel on the side of the house will need help too, as we seem to have put it about 6″ too far to the left and the gutter never sits on it properly.

The pin oak is finally losing its leaves.

Many things are still green in the garden (Greg urged us to appreciate that “there’s still alot going on out there right now” – a textbook example of preaching to the choir). The bellflower is still clean and green and crisp and fresh. The coral bells are the same. I wonder why this is, as from what we learned in class, these plants should be winter annuals, but they are perennials. Perhaps evergreen perennials? I shall learn soon if there is such a thing.

The flagstone path is becoming more and more uneven, heaving in places. We will have to have sand delivered and pull out each stone, line the bottom with fresh sand and place it again, another task for spring. That list is growing longer and longer.

As I make a photograph in the butterfly bed, I accidentally break a milkweed pod from its stem. The stem is completely dry and the milkweed bud cracks in my hand like an eggshell, with an interior lined with a brittle paper-like shell. The seeds begin to stick to my gloves and I drop the pod into the bed, brushing the seeds into the air.

I take the twig inside and pull out a cutting board, select a sharp knife and begin to shave back the covering on those terminal buds. I’m hoping to see those purple flowers, tiny and sweet. I see just green, little leaves.  I start to peel back the lateral buds and see just green again, a spiral of tender new growth. Not what I expected, but still a sign of hope, a sign of good things to come.

I notice that Dominic, in his Christmas light removal, missed some of the ground anchors. SIGH. I have spent the weekend making lists, shopping IKEA and Target and Walts, trying to cover all the bases for his departure a week from today. He’ll be living in an apartment-style dorm, with a kitchen and private bath, so it’s more like trying to outfit a home than just a bed and desk. Tony smiles as the pile on the dining room table grows – twin sheets, inexpensive pots and pans, plastic cups, toothpaste – boys don’t worry about these things, he posits. Well, their mothers do. Dominic hasn’t given a single thought to basics – his main concern is that he doesn’t have a DVD player. (Too bad, so sad.) Every time I come upon a Dominic Annoyance – the  things left behind, not put away, the crumbs and spills in the kitchen, the shoes left melting in the hallway, I declare aloud the days remaining until he leaves and tell him how glad I’ll be when he’s gone and my house stays clean.

Tonight, he hugs me and tells me that of course I’ll miss him. That I will cry, that I’ll be missing his smile, and the ruckus he causes. I’ll miss his smile, I admit, but will be able to do nicely without the ruckus.

He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t really get the enormity of what he’s doing next Sunday. Just a few short years ago, we didn’t know if he would ever be able to do what he’s doing – leave home, live with a perfect stranger, handle a full load of classes – make a real life. My heart is filled with joy and with awe. I am happy beyond belief. There is no sense of “stay one more day.” There is no hesitation, no nostalgic tears. There is only happiness, joy and peace. The bud of his life, so long dormant, is now unfurling, now blooming, now becoming whole and real and beautiful.

I will miss him terribly. I will miss the smile, and yes, the ruckus, the quirky sense of humor. I will probably find an excuse to be in the area and take him to dinner, to drink in his face and his voice and his intelligence and his experiences. But I am so glad he’s leaving, because it’s normal, it’s right and it’s healthy.

And the greatly reduced amount of laundry will be nice too.