The End of Our Year

March 19, 2011

The eve of spring, the last day of winter, the end of our year.

This morning, everything is ice-bitten, rimmed with rime, hushed with hoarfrost. The roof sparkles, the leaves glitter, the sprouts shine.

It is so – – – perfect.

It is the ideal way to end this year, as if the garden gods know what I’m doing and are giving me a perfect poetic juxtaposition of winter and spring. A chill in the air, but behind it, sunshine. No trace of that hyacinth still, and the daffodils are definitely behind, but yesterday the sparrows were moving nesting materials into the birdhouse – they are early.

This year, I learned that my little suburban plot of land is a place of astonishing wonder and excitement, if I only open my eyes. I learned that the spectacles of new life, wild sex, extreme violence and crushing death play out, every day, in this very small space. I learned we share this spot with an overwhelming number of living creatures and, while we may have the most commodious home and pay the mortgage, they are symbiotic neighbors, vitally important and necessary. Their lives begin and grow and changes and die with not a thought about humans – we are beneath their notice. We are not as important as we believe. I learned about soil and leaves and Damn Rabbits and grasshoppers and milkweed and milkweed bugs. I learned growing patterns, composting, lawn care. I learned that January and February are not at all quiet in the garden – that there is tale to be told on even the darkest, the coldest, the deadest days of winter.

I learned (because of the massive hours I’ve put into this project over the past 365 days) that my husband truly does have the patience of a saint, and supports me beyond my wildest expectations. His love surrounds me – each and every day. I learned that my kids (oops – my adult children) support me exquisitely. I learned – oh so very happily – that Dominic will truly be well, he will survive and thrive and grow and mature and be happy. My heart is now at peace for him – I can breathe, normally, after many years. I learned – joyfully – that Eliza is ready – ready for the next step, ready for an immersion into what she loves best, ready to begin to grow into what she is meant to be. Her intelligence, her talent, her belief in herself and in others is incredible to behold. I am so thankful for their support.

I learned how the love of gardening reaches across age spans, across the state and the country, across cultural spans and neighboring yards. Through this adventure, I made good friends who will last a very long time. I am thankful for everyone who has followed this particular journey, family, friends and complete strangers, giving me kudos and feedback, encouragement and comfort. I learned that setting a very ambitious goal and seeing it through is not as insurmountable as it may seem – as long as we take the steps, each and every day, to reach that goal. I learned that completing ten weeks of Master Gardening classes while working a full time job makes you want to sleep for a week when it’s all accomplished.

Another perfect gift – a robin, plump and rosy, flies up into the pin oak as I head around the corner. I have seen the doves, I have seen sparrows and juncos and I have seen dozens of robins around the neighborhood, but I have yet to see one in my garden – until today, this last day of winter. Her breast is that red-but-more-rust-really-if-we’re-being-honest-with-ourselves and she sits now on the fence, fluffed against that nip in the air, eyeing me distrustfully. As I creep closer, step by step, to make a better photograph, she flies away, step by step, always outpacing me, never allowing me to gain so much as an inch.

This year – spring, summer, fall and winter – is finished. Spring arrives tonight, with a “super” full moon to herald its arrival. Beautiful things are behind us and beautiful things await us – this new year and every year – if only we take that moment to look, to listen, to smell, to touch, to enjoy. Relax, stop and enjoy. You will see and learn so very much.


Thank you for your kind attention, for your time and for your interest in this journey. I hope you have enjoyed it, because for me, it was an absolute, life-changing blast. Many readers have enjoyed it and have encouraged me not to stop just because my year is over. Because of this, I will continue, though not at this consuming, intensive pace. After April 15, you can find new postings and musings at


A beautiful, warm, spring-like day! A cacophony of birds chirping, soaring and diving. What a gorgeous day this will be!

When I opened the front door to get the newspaper this morning, I discovered a parcel. It was addressed to me from “AlwysCoffee.” Hmm… I don’t know an Alwys Coffee and I haven’t ordered anything recently. I call Tony and nope, he hasn’t ordered anything either.

While we muse, I open the box and find a trowel. Curiouser and curiouser! There is no card, no note of any kind. Tony googles (should that be Googles?) the address and the name, coming up with absolutely nothing. This is very strange. He suggests this has something to do with Master Gardening – do they send a trowel upon completion? I hadn’t heard any such thing, but maybe they do – or maybe this company, Ames, pulls a list and sends to new MGer’s.

It is a fancy trowel, seven features in one. The edges are sharp, it feels good in my hand. I am planning on getting outside at some point today – those cyclamen and liatris are itching to be planted. This mystery trowel will come in handy. Who could have sent this?

I call my mom – she will love to ponder this with me. When I start to explain, she says, “Oh, did you get it already? We only ordered it last week!”

Mystery solved.

My wonderful parents ordered this quality trowel, an outstanding tool (“seven tools in one!” my mom exclaims) as a graduation gift for me. It makes me smile – and then smile again whenever I think of it.

I am able to knock off at 3 and so head outside. I grab the milorganite to spill where Damn Rabbits dare to chew, my gloves, my new trowel and the corms. I’m wearing my new shoes and it doesn’t take me long to realize that I’m not going to be out here for “just a minute”; it is just too pleasant and warm. Back inside to change. I do not want to ruin my new kicks. I tap my gardening shoes on the garage floor; a close encounter with a big wolf spider is not on my list of favorite things. Now with proper, old dirty shoes, I can dig in (both literally and figuratively).

The bucket for clippings comes with me too.

Where to put that cyclamen? Do we put a clump here and a clump there, or do we group them all together for a really powerful pop in the fall? I stroll around, looking at the bed under the pin oak and finally decide that a grouping, next to the bridge, is the right thing to do. The soil is still like coffee grounds, the yards of dirt in fall 09 were a good investment.

When planting bulbs and corms, the recommendation is to dig a hole just twice the depth of that bulb or corm, so it’s covered by just the amount of dirt that it is high. Well, these corms are only about an inch or so thick, so I am a little confused as to depth. I try not to go too deep, as the salesman told me I could put them right on the dirt and they’d be okay. I plant all three in a triangle pattern, with the rough side up.

I see a dandelion by the foxglove. This nifty trowel has a divot in the end, (“weed puller” is the name of this feature) so I sink it into the earth next to the leaves and lever up. The divot catches the root and lifts it out, all in one piece.

I’m liking this trowel.

Handfuls of brown leaves go into the bucket, I use my new bypass pruners to clip the old foxgloves stems to the ground. The hosta leaves get picked up like a mat, easy peasy, and go into the bucket. There is a white fungus on the ground underneath them, a mold. The tiles are lifted, brushed off and replaced, forming the end of the walkway through that bed. I uncover foxglove sprouting and daffodils. I cut away the dried catmint and find new leaves already, fresh and clean in the air.

I realize I could clean these beds for a few more hours and that liatris really needs planting, so I suppress the urge to keep cleaning and head to the front. The grasses bed is where the first packet of eight will go, but this again needs to be cleaned. I razor the spirea down to the ground (this is called rejuvenation if you’re keeping notes), pick up cellophane wrappers, dead leaves and small white plastic caps. As I take away all the brown detrits, there is green, green and green. The mums are emerging, the daffodils sprouting, the coneflowers starting to rosette on the surface. The green now stands out against the black dirt; I really need to mulch this year.

The pampas grass needs to be cut down. With the big pruners, I cut the two smaller clumps down to the ground. I stuff the stalks into the yard waste bin, breaking them into pieces, one side then the other, back and forth. For the big clump, I go into the garage for the electric hedge clippers.

A problem. The clippers are not on the top shelf; they are not on the floor. They are not on any of the shelves as a matter of fact. Perhaps in the attic? It’s looking more and more like rain, so I turn my attention back to the liatris. That big clump will just have to wait.

I plan the liatris behind the coneflower cluster, just the other side of where I’ll plant sunflowers again this year. The corms are starting to sprout, green leaves like small talons emerging from that rough side. I am glad it is so pleasant today.

I lay out the eight corms in a rough circle, fuss with it a little, and then start digging. These again are smaller and flatter than a regular bulb, so I am careful not to go too deep. I get a straight shovel and edge this bed, cutting into the soil, creating a clean line.

Now for the tricky part. I want the two new clumps to complement the butterfly bed, to carry that fuzzy purple flower across the front yard. The perfect place is amidst the iris and gallardia planted last fall, but that certainly will not work; talk about digging stuff up! I clean up a goodly portion of this bed, cutting down the peonies, removing all the stalks from the grow-through ring and resetting the ring. I cut down some of the coneflowers, I trim all the dead leaves from those clumps of transplanted irises. Oh, joy of joys, I see green as I remove that brown – at least three iris plants have made this through successfully. More new coneflower rosettes here too.

The liatris goes in an oval between the coral bells and the iris, and then again between coneflower and peonies. It is still warm and breezy, with no hint of rain in the air, belying that grey and overcast sky. I can get more accomplished. I pick up two, three, four and five Christmas light hooks laying in the peony bed. I pick up errant compost and throw it into the big pot. (I’ve found a combination for containers that I think will rock my world in the summer, so I’m thinking about that – and the railing boxes – already) I scoop up leaves, cut down the peony stalks here, trim all the coeropsis stems poking everywhere. More green under this brown too. Mums again, those crazy tulips, coneflower rosettes. I see red and pink peony eyes starting to peek out of the soil.

There is a big cluster of donkey tail spurge already green and lush, with stems about 18″ long. I trim it all back, watching the noxious fluid bubble out at the cut. Now this bed is clean too, again the green stands out against the soil.

A noticeable omission here – the hyacinth is nowhere to be seen. There are no sprouts in that area, no green at all. I believe they were up already last year, as I started this project. I check and yes, there are photos of them up, budded out, almost ready to bloom, just two days from now. I see too that the daffodils were further along by this time too. One year of weather highs and lows, of the sunshine, the rains and the snow, have made such a difference.

The trowel has passed muster – with flying colors. The liatris and the cyclamen are planted, now safe in the ground to sprout, to grow, to bloom. All that magic, happening right now underground – just like all the green leaves and sprouts waiting for those brown leaves to whisk away, to make their own magic right where we can see it.


No More Children

March 16, 2011

Yesterday was Eliza’s 18th birthday. Tony says I must stop saying “the kids” and say “adult children” instead.

Only three more days of this year in my garden. When the project started, a year seemed like such a long time to devote to writing. I worried that life and work and “other things” would get in the way. I worried that I wouldn’t finish it as well as I had started.

Well, it has gone by in a blink and I have kept with it the whole way through.

It’s much the same with my “adult children”. When they were born, it seems like the years until their adulthood stretched out, languid and long, the anticipation of a slow unspooling of hours and days and years. How does 18 years go by in a blink?

I worry here too – much more than I do about my garden. I worry about piercings (she mentioned something about her nose, but Tony suggested otherwise), but not much about tattoos. She is too aware of job possibilities and acting roles evaporating because of errant ink. I worry about her confidence, her independence, her fire and her trust in people. She is such a spirited child.

Oh, sorry. She is such a spirited adult.

Spring is in the air today. A week ago, I made suet, melting bacon grease, adding peanut butter and poring that mixture over bird seed in plastic cups, with string inside for hanging. I stuck them in the freezer to harden. A day or so ago, I put a cake out, tying it to the shepherd’s hook. Today, it is gone, completely disappeared. Somebody – probably a squirrel – has dragged it off and is now probably laying somewhere with a terrific bellyache from overindulging. I can imagine tiny glazed over eyes, a swollen tummy and a hazy smile on little squirrel lips.

I see daffodils under the pin oak, just starting to emerge in the crotch of the berm and the ground. There is bellflower coming up too, shiny and green with hints of red in the leaves. No geranium yet.

Around front, a cardinal is calling, bright and piercing. Neatnik Neighbor is out, absorbed in his lawn care already. In the grasses bed, I see tiny, scalloped leaves of mums, a tender pale green, starting their long journey to bloom.

A fly startles me and then settles on the brick. Spring is certainly approaching – insects are out. The raggedy tulips are coming up. These things are a marvel, a miracle and an astonishment. They were planted before we bought the house, buried in rock, surrounded by bushes. We moved all the rock, ripped out the old bushes, dumped in inches and inches of black dirt. The bulbs have probably been disturbed a dozen times over the years, sometimes dug right up, sometimes just sliced in half by a trowel. They still persist, each and every year. The sprouts come up in strange places, scattered with no pattern; one is smashed right against the crown of a hydrangea. The Damn Rabbits chew them but they continue to persevere. How incredibly heroic – right here in my front bed.

Daffodils are higher and higher, starting to form slender buds on stems. I put another cake of suet out, into the hands of our concrete sun. One of the milkweed pods has made it through the winter, still filled with seeds. What promise this holds! A chance at starting a brand new story – all over again. Like a garden, like a life – we can always start over again.

New stories are starting now for Eliza. These 18 years have just been the foundation. Her childhood may be over, but the real adventures begin now.  She is starting a brand new story today, and will start another again in the fall – and then again after that. There will be so many new stories throughout her life.

And I will still worry.

The Garden Show!

March 13, 2011

The Garden Show! The Garden Show! The Chicago Flower and Garden Show!

Sunday morning, we took Dominic back to school and then headed to Navy Pier for the Garden Show. Who knows what we would find? New designs? New ideas? New tools? The possibilities are mind-blowing!

I bought the tickets, got our parking ticket validated and we headed up the stairs. The entrance is filled with sports jerseys, bats, balls, pucks and sticks. I’m getting a clear idea of this year’s theme…

There are two boats, adrift on a bed of colored glass, blue and turquoise, arranged artfully in wave and wake-like patterns. At first, it intrigues me. The artistry of the design, the duplication of water in glass is beautifully done. But it is cold, it seems rather soulless. I don’t like it much. Tony agrees.

We pass a windbreak of sorts, a mix of spruce and deciduous trees, underlaid with green ground covers. Ah! If I could just import this entire arrangement home and plant it between Gwen and I – this is perfect! I make a photograph so I can remember what this looks (and feels) like.

The photo submissions are up and Tony quickly finds the two I’ve submitted. He is really good that way – I am not even through with the first panel. I’m looking for a reason that my photos were not chosen for awards but it all seems very arbitrary to me; the winners are not that much more astonishing. Tony tells me the fix was in. He is very sure my photographs are far and away the best ones here. (I really do love this man.) It makes me feel very warm inside that my submissions are displayed in any case; it’s really enough for me.

Tony has already surveyed the next display and points out the big balls of white orchids hanging in mid-air. His analysis is that it’s a good idea, but… I look past the orbs and see the wicket, then I see an enormous mallet, also suspended from the ceiling. “It’s croquet!” I exclaim. Tony says “ah, yeah.” Sometimes I can’t see the forest for the trees.

We stroll past another display, this one a backyard, complete with tulips, daffodils, lawnchairs and a grill. There are three women there and one of them is reading a tag aloud. “Lamb’s ear,” she says to her friends. “Why, I’ve never seen that before.” The next thing I know, I’m telling them what a wonderful plant it is, how it is soft, Damn Rabbit-resistant, how well it works as a ground cover, how it sends up big pink spires of flowers and how it has to be carefully tended to control its invasive tendencies. The women are convinced – this looks like a great new addition for their gardens. One of them asks where they would purchase it. I ask where they live, thinking I can refer them to a local nursery. Lo and behold, one lives in a neighboring town and the other two right here in Tinley. We introduce ourselves – they are Nancy, Geri and (I think) Carol. I tell them that I always have too much lamb’s ear and they are welcome to stop by and get some. They look a little surprised and then ask me for my phone number. I give them my number and email address and encourage them to call. “I’ve got cat mint too – I’d love to share.” Tony shakes hands all around as well and echos my invitation. Nancy asks if there’s a particular time I will dig things up. “No,” I laugh. “Lamb’s ear can come out anytime. I have plenty.” We part with promises from them to call.

Won’t that be fun??

We walk through the Aquascapes exhibit, past the crowd surrounding the koi. There is a fun container “steaming” with a short splashy fountain, just beads of water popping up. A metal bird stands inside of it and when its mouth fills with water every few seconds, the beak opens and the water spills out. I think it’s alot of fun and think the steam is kind of cool too. Tony dismisses it with a shake of his head. We pass a pondless waterfall and I point it out. “Dumb,” Tony says. “Where are you putting fish?”

“Well, that’s the point,” I answer. “It’s for people who want the splashing but not the fish and plants and maintenance.” He is not convinced and shakes his head again. He does like the overflowing jars of water that sit on a sunken pump, just like the waterfalls.

There is one large garden devoted to the Blackhawks. No flowers here, just a great many shades of green, different textures and sleek, modern hardscaping. Hockey sticks lined up in a neat even row work as a fence, pucks fill a steel cage that might or might not be a seating option. There are modern white chairs, a rectangular pond lined with perforated steel, long low benches and – how fun – the Hawks logo built from different coleus in a vertical garden.

Another garden includes several vertical gardens, A frames that dot the display. This display is filled with hyacinth and the fragrance is overwhelming, simply heavenly – spring literally in the air. I’m considering a vertical garden for edible greens on the fireplace wall this summer (I’m considering so many things – will I get any of them accomplished?!), so I make several photographs to help myself along.

And then there are the cakes. Beth Fahey, a friend of mine who co-owns Creative Cakes with her sister here in Tinley, is running this show, having organized all the bakers, the event, the publicity – she is running ragged, but looks fantastic nonetheless. The cake decorating contest started a few hours ago and the eleven decorators are well into their creative processes. The air smells like sugar, sweet and delicious. Tony and I are wondering what happens to these cakes when the judging is complete. We are willing to wait here, forks in hand, to help with any disposal needs. We watch a decorator feed fondant through a roller once, twice, three, four, five times, each time getting a thinner and thinner sheet, wider and wider. Another decorator paints peacock feathers, another fashions calla lilies. There is a cake covered with a trellis and flowers, another decorated in a “pen and ink” technique that is just so striking. Tony and I chat with Beth and we meet her husband.

It’s time for us to visit the vendor booths – I love this part. It’s not even the thought of purchasing something (although I’m so happy to see the same bare root and bulb vendor here!), it’s the fun of all this goofiness.

First stop is that bulb vendor. I’m disappointed to find not a single peony, but see many many other choices. The gardening blood starts pumping as I look at the many varieties of daylilies, daffodils, tulips. I force myself not to take a bag because it will just mean trouble. Tony picks up a bag and hands it to me. “I’ve got to be careful,” I say. “I don’t have those new beds in yet.” We find cyclamen – I love cyclamen and I’ve never found a reliable corm. These are enormous, the size of cow patties. I look at one side and then the other and remain confused. Which side is up? A grower comes by to help and tells me, “rough side up.” Well, okay. Some of them just don’t have a rough side. I pick three that do. I ask if they’ll do well under a pin oak. “They love the shade,” he confirms.

Tony points out liatris and the fact that butterflies love it. I do have room for that, so I pick up three packs of eight. Now I MUST stop – and I go to check out.

There is a booth filled with laser cut mats for photographs, thousands of names. We wonder aloud if we can find “Eliza” (rarer than hen’s teeth in your stock personalized items) and the sales man finds it for us. Tony and I look at each other, realizing we feel that we have to buy it now. $11 changes hands.

I look at real leaves dipped in copper and polished to a shiny patina. I get my rings cleaned (how weird that I actually wore them!) and tell the guy – who talks a mile a minute – that I’ll think about it. Tony subscribes to USA Today and gets a reusable bag, a travel mug and a few packets of zinnia seeds.

We sample dips on pretzel sticks, watch the demo of a garlic grater and see the vegetable peeler man. He was here last year too – bent over from years of peeling carrots and fashioning radish rosettes. He makes very bad jokes about the difference between a real beet and a deadbeat. I could watch this guy all day – I get such a kick out of his constant spiel, extolling the virtues of stainless steel and a tungsten blade.

We sit on massage pillows (ooo, very nice) and give our feet a whirl too. We try the back supports that remind me of butterflies. Smith and Hawken gives me handful of basil seed sticks; it’s only hours until the close of the show. We discuss the difference between “ends your skin problems forever” and “get the best skin you can have.” It’s like a carnival here.

We share a hot dog and a Sierra Mist.

Tony wonders what will happen to the hockey sticks and pucks when the show ends in two hours. Never shy, I go ask the people who are in charge of the display. She has, in fact, just texted her boss to find out. Check back in a half hour, she recommends.

The tabletop displays are next, with some simply breathtaking and a few uninspired. None of them are realistic, none could be used for an actual event. They are merely art for art’s sake, which is never a bad thing.

We find bentwood rocking chairs that seem to have the power to change our lives. They are incredibly comfortable, almost melodic in their fluidity. I could sit here all day – this seat would give my hammock a run for its money. We rock while we try to figure out where the vendor is. There is a mother and daughter nearby in the same conundrum. We bond over the unavailability of information. The daughter remarks that if we tried to leave with the chairs, we’d probably find out who they belonged to – quickly.

That gives us an idea and we discuss the possibility of just walking out with the chairs, with the ready explanation that we assumed they were samples. Tony talks a good game, but he’d never allow me to try it.

Our bags are full of stuff and things; our heads are filled with ideas. We are ready to leave. There is still no word back about the hockey sticks, but my feet are hurting (bad shoes on a concrete floor for hours).

I wonder if the ladies will call. I do always have lamb’s ear.

The Last Class

March 12, 2011

The morning started out all wrong today. Usually on my drive to Master Gardening class, I call my mom (she expects it now, you know) and we have a decent 20-minute chat on my way to the Farm Bureau.

She didn’t answer the phone.

Usually, I zip right along I-80 to Chicago Street. There may be a little slow down where the road goes from three lanes to two, but it’s hardly noticeable.

Today, I-80 was a parking lot for godknowswhatreason. I got off at Maple and using my GPS map, found an alternate route. I got back on at Briggs where it was now free and clear.

It had probably cleared up right after Maple.

So it turned out that I was walking in at 9:00, late for all intents and purposes. Nancy was already talking, the Autotrophettes had taken my usual seat and I had to sit in the same funky position I sat in the very first day. How uncomfortable.

I took a couple of deep cleansing breaths to shake out the bad vibes. It was Russ today, wrapping us up with Plant Pathology or, as he calls it, the Death and Destruction chapter.

Russ is by far the nattiest of the MG educators, in jacket and tie, with neatly trimmed professorial beard. He has the quietest approach and the driest sense of humor.

Being presented with something dead will do you no good, he stated. Homeowners need to give you living and dead, with hopefully something dying in between. That’s the only way anything can be diagnosed. He talks about all the things that can cause non-infectious diseases: too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry, soil too acid, too alkaline, too moist, too arid, too compacted. He references genetic factors and then talks about the biggest problem, Stuff People Do. This includes the usual suspects such as air, water and soil pollution, but, he explains, a great deal of the damage that is done is done purposefully, through fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides.

Those homeowners haven’t had “The Label Is the Law” drilled into their little green thumbs.

He talked about infectious pathogens (I sound more and more like an Autotroph Woman ever day, don’t I?) such as fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic round white worms, ever present. There are good nematodes and bad nematodes and, Russ says, they know which is which and wage constant battle.

Do they wear little white or black cowboy hats to set themselves apart, or perhaps have atom-sized tattoos with nematode gang signs in red or blue ink? Do they sing about the Jets and the Sharks and tap dance through the soil?

Russ also talks about plants can go into decline, old age. Just like people begin to slow and fail, so do plants. He explains that vectors are the means by which disease is spread and these can include wind, rain, dew, squirrels, Damn Rabbits, insects by the dozens and of course that perennial favorite, human intervention.

The Asian Longhorn Beetle and the Emerald Ash Borer are just two of the horrific little critters people brought to the wrong place, to wreak environmental havoc. He mentioned Dutch Elm Disease coming over in firewood. Those native plants, who’ve evolved with these pathogens, are unaffected by them because they’ve built up a resistance over the years – the fittest, the most adapted, have survived. Our elms and ashes are unprotected from these dangerous creatures and don’t have the evolutionary safeguards of their distant cousins.

I think of my Ent and his thought that it’s all too complicated to be an accident. Seems like any truly Intelligent Designer would have taken all this havoc into account early in the planning stage. And if destroying literally thousands of ash trees is in the great design, why is the Ent trying to save them? Just makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

Russ talks about powdery mildew and how there are literally thousands of strains. There are a great deal of questions about how to get rid of it and Russ answers; pruning, better air circulation, sunshine. I do not mention spraying milk on the plant; I’ve been in enough trouble about the blasted vinegar.

Fungi are the biggest problem – there are countless forms and strains and shapes and sizes, all around us every day. They are all host specific, meaning that one type of fungi that destroys a cucumber will do absolutely nothing to a neighboring rose bush.

So why, with all these ever-present pathogens whirling around madly through our environment, isn’t everything completely withered? How does anything, at all, ever survive?

Well, all the dominos have to line up and that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. The host must be susceptible, stressed in some way or not genetically resistant. The pathogen that’s present must be specific to that host. There must be a favorable environment for that pathogen to thrive – wet or dry, hot or cold, dark or light. And the biggest issue – the mother of all the dominos – is time. There must be enough time for the pathogen to actually create a problem. If aphids are knocked from a leaf immediately, sooty mold will not have a chance to grow on their droppings. If the weather warms up a little faster, that anthracnose won’t have time to destroy that first batch of sycamore leaves. Time, it turns out, is really the driving force for all destruction.

After lunch, the lesson gets more and more confusing – I am heartily glad that this is just an overview and that wonderful MG manual will be by my side. Every photograph is of a brown, drying plant – withered leaf after withered leaf. Sometimes the diseased material is along the rib, sometimes it’s interveinal, but it’s always brown. Strangely enough, according to Russ, each of these nearly identical brown leaves were damaged by something different! My head is swimming.

The treatment is always very much the same – prune away the bad stuff, make sure the plant is in the proper site and is well taken care of. Aside for a very few truly nasty customers like crown gall and vericillium wilt (that stuff is like the bubonic plague of the plant world), there are really very few death sentences. Most of the removed material can be composted as the heat generated is hot enough to kill the pathogens (Thank goodness because I discovered I’ve been composting strawberries with botrytis blight for years).

Tomatoes that get blossom end rot need more calcium, which means eggshells should be integrated into the soil.

I think not just of plants, but of people. All of our millions and billions and trillions of cells constantly firing off and growing, breathing in viruses, bacteria, pollution, bumping and bruising, breaking and tearing. Wow – I think – it’s amazing how any of us survive.

And then I realize it’s due to our own intelligence. Antibiotics, medicines to thin or thicken the blood, attack that cancer, regulate that cholesterol, surgery, artificial organs and bones, lasers, exercises, therapies – what wonderful ways we have discovered to fight all those pathogens, to beat the dominos.

Russ talked of how some hostas are developed by taking the very first cells that are grown in a laboratory and putting them into another species to make them disease-resistant. Sounds like stem cell research to me.

At the end of the class, Nancy claps for all of us who’ve made it. We clap too. She talks of volunteer opportunities and pot luck lunches, of becoming a part of the MG family. There are many very nice women (and a handful of men) in this room, who love their gardens, love to share information, want others to discover how delicious it can be to see a garden grow – and how delicious a tomato can be right off the vine.

Our last class has ended, but I’m thinking that the really good stuff hasn’t even begun.

Life screeched to a halt today and it actually felt really good.

After a morning speaking engagement, I surveyed my desk. The client project list is robust, tomorrow is the last Master Gardener class and I’m (as usual) behind on my bookkeeping. But Dominic is home for spring break and all his plans of seeing friends, of spending the day with Danny, have been ruined by a raging case of pinkeye. Today he is in quarantine. It is grey, it is cold; he is feeling rather pitiful.

So I close the door to my office, we throw on hats and gloves, snap a leash on Griffey (who, after his Monday experience with the grinder, got a haircut on Tuesday – he is terrified of the groomer – and now seems to share the pinkeye with Dominic – poor dog) and drive to Lake Katherine.

We pull in and I pester Dominic because he didn’t bring gloves. He is already out of the car and climbing the waterfall by the time I get my belongings stowed in the car trunk.

Lake Katherine is an ironic nature center. The land has been reclaimed; the lake is lined in concrete. Most of the boulders are hollow concrete bubbles, like giant cups in a massive shell game. The waterfall originates not from a natural spring, but a powerful pump. Tony and I began coming here decades ago, before the gardens went in, before the nature center. Dominic and Eliza have always enjoyed it here, splashing in the stream, watching the geese, lunching near the waterfall. Over the years, it has evolved into a more and more natural environment, covered with algae and flowers and grasses, attracting butterflies, birds, coyotes and deer. Isn’t it amazing how nature just takes over when given the chance?

Griffey is full of enthusiasm. He hasn’t really given his head a good doggie shake since The Blades of Death Encounter; his neck is sore. Griffey recognizes this place I think, we have walked here before with Tony. He pulls up the path and Dominic scoops him up for a photograph. That boy just loves that dog.

We follow the path back down the other side of the falls and start to walk past the herb garden. I tell Dominic to wait a minute, to go inside the raised beds. He rolls his eyes and says, “everything is dead in there.” I take him in the square and show him how wrong he is, how much is starting to green. I think he rolled his eyes again.

We walk past the Beaver House and see a swan floating effortlessly towards the shore. We leave the path and head to the water as I make photographs along the way.

For as elegant and fluid as a swan is, most of the illustrations are quite fanciful, showing a delicate, flute-like neck. In reality, a swan’s neck is as thick as your arm, muscled and substantial. You could not put your hand around it; you would need two. If you could get even get two hands around it because that swan would probably poke you bloody before you got a chance.

Dominic and I talk about nothing, just silliness and college stories. Dominic notices that the Children’s Forest was planted and dedicated just weeks after he was born. He notes that the trees are a lot taller than he is – even though they are all the same age.

We break from the main path and take the sheltered, kinda-creepy path that passes under the railroad tracks. The trees here are old, positively ancient. Gnarled and twisted, huge and dark overhead. Even in their leafless state, they cast deep shadows across the path. Here is the only snow we see today, a 24″ by 10-12 feet slick of ice that, with this shelter, may be here until June. We come to a meadow of sorts, lined with piles of brush. Dominic runs across the open space and begins to run up the railroad embankment. Griffey pulls and whines to follow him. It makes me a little nervous. I call him back and he keeps going, shouting back “why?”

Nature apparently makes him revert back to a stubborn 8-year-old.

I pull out the big guns and let Griffey go. He tears off after Dominic and immediately Dominic turns around and heads down the hill to get to Griffey. The boy laughs at me, laughs at Griffey, now stumped by a puddle of water (“oh god! Not WATER!” he agonizes) and laughs at himself running down the hill.

We head back to the main path and see several big dogs being walked behind us on the path. Those dogs whine and yap and pull. Griffey hustles up the path; he is afraid of those guys. Dominic talks about looking forward to lacrosse games starting, how he can hardly believe his semester is halfway through.

We pass a pair of geese and the larger one turns to Griffey, opens his mouth and hisses loudly. This dog cannot catch a single break this week.

The fresh, cold air and the vigorous walk has cleared both of our heads. While the sky is still grey, we are no longer. Being outside has done us both so much good.

At the end of the pond, there is a sludge of foam and bubbles. It makes a repetitive pattern, swirls and dips, striations of white, tan and brown. I stop to make images; Dominic runs to the car and hops up and down, shouting for me to open the door.

I told him to bring his gloves.

The Death of A Friend

March 7, 2011

I woke this morning with a pit in my stomach. A horrible, nagging feeling, after a tossing and turning night, that a wrong decision was going to be made, something I could never make right. In the shower, that pit just got deeper and more painful; my heart became more and more involved. I heard the truck in the driveway, 30 minutes before it was expected, making my heart ache. I thought I would be sick.

When the Ent/Arborist came to look at my honey locust trees, he found no cankers, only normal bark splits from normal growth and respectfully disagreed with Nancy. In a way, I felt better, as I never wanted to get rid of the one that’s properly sited. He did recommend a good pruning for both and a growth stunting treatment for the stupidly-placed tree. I agreed to the pruning but not to the treatment. I thought about my hammock, for which this tree is a support, but I also thought about the house, the branches, the roots which trip us up at every opportunity, the way this thing is truly only half a tree – the sheer stupidity of where this is placed. Then in a burst of decisiveness, I sent an email asking him to prune the one and take the other down – I was just postponing the inevitable.

Okay, he replied. Monday at 8.

So here it is Monday at 7:30 and my hair is not dry, I’m not dressed and I feel like I’m betraying a dear friend, irrevocably. I rush through and rush downstairs to perhaps put a stop to this madness, to embrace this awkwardly (okay, asininely) placed tree and throw myself in front of the chainsaw. WHAT was I thinking?

I am already too late. The canopy is laying all over the yard, with just the trunk and one errant branch left up. The decision has been made. I put the dogs on the leads and holding them in my hand, go outside. Lucky pretends he is a nice dog (like he always does with strangers) and Griffey barks like he might take someone’s leg off (which he actually might – very protective). They do their business as the Ent and the Young Ent begin to rope the top of the tree and to decide how they are going to take the trunk down.

The dogs go back into the house and I watch as the chainsaw bites into the bark, then slices so easily through that trunk. I’m at a total loss, completely conflicted. The tree begins to sway, then falls with a thump. I walk over and talk to the Ent while the Young Ent sets the very tall ladder against the other tree, climbs up and begins to sculpt that tree. He stands on the top rung, seemingly hanging over nothing, the ladder (in my opinion) barely supported by the tree. Tony would have a fit if he saw this, I think. Sawdust floats across the yard, gets in my eyes. It is itchy and uncomfortable.

Ent and I talk about the sadness of losing the tree, how irresponsible it is to plant magnificent organisms in the wrong spot. I asked him about how cankers can be confused with bark splits and he gives me a quick lesson about tree growth, division of cells and cambium. It is very scientific, so I am thrown for quite the loop when he suddenly says, “evolution is just nonsense – this is such a complicated process, Somebody had to be behind it all.”


I do not comment.

I head around to the front, to watch the branches loaded into the chipper. The machine is huge, the entrance protected with a thick rubber apron. The branches are sucked in so quickly – it’s like a horror-film monster sucking in a sacrifice. Which is about how I feel right now. Ent brings the trunk – about 15″ thick and 5 feet long – around and loads it onto the machine’s bed. He pushes it in (I am surprised – this is huge) and it begins to grind, chuddering, stopping, starting and blowing mulch into the truck. I run upstairs to wake up Dominic, home on spring break, to have him look out of his window. He doesn’t even move (it IS 8 am) and I run back outside.

Around in the backyard, I survey the area. Gracious, how WEIRD. It is horribly bare, the sky is bare, the yard is bare – bare, bare, bare. Ent saves me the section of trunk that held the hook for my hammock. Good lord, where am I going to hang my hammock?

I go back inside and they bring the stump grinder around to the back. It looks like a riding lawn mower, but underneath, it is much more powerful. Think of how dangerous a mower is and then multiply that by thousands and thousands. This thing is massive, sharp sharp sharp – wickedly sharp.

The dogs are asking to go outside again and I know the noise from the grinder will put them off (they hate the dustbuster, for heaven’s sake); they will stay away. And the decision I make to hold the leads lightly may haunt me forever. For when we step onto the patio, Griffey takes off in a powerful burst, running in a wide circle around the grinder. His lead pulls into a circle, with the grinder at the center. I am frozen with terror. Seconds seem like hours and like milliseconds at the same time. I wave my hands, I scream. I am afraid to grab the lead as I’m not sure what Griffey will do. Ent has earphones on, to block the sound. He does not see the lead, closer and closer to the grinder all the time.

I see it catch on the grinder and I see it pull Griffey, yank him toward the grinder so quickly, so violently. I see this struggling, terrified ball of white fur sucked into the hole, right into the blades. Ent has seen at last and turns off the motor – he is now shouting and jumping off the grinder. I think there is no way to fix this. You cannot stitch this back together. You cannot make this dog whole, you cannot make him alive again after this. There is no help for this.

Like Lazarus from the grave, Griffey bounds out of the hole and runs toward the back door. I am sick, thinking that this might be even worse. I see no red, no blood, no gore or exposed body parts on this side of his body. He stands by the door, shaking, hysterical. I am in the same condition. I run my hands over his body, covered with wood chips and saw dust. There is no blood, there is no gash, there is nothing, no injury at all. His tail is in one piece, his ears are undamaged. His lead hangs from his collar, the hook still intact, the metal cord just inches long now, chewed through.

I cannot believe this. I feel again, every inch, every bone. He does not wince, he does not nip, he does not react. He runs into his cage under the kitchen desk with no trace of a limp in any foot. The dear Ent is at the door, asking if he is okay. I go back outside and apologize about a thousand times. I shake and sit on the stoop, he gives me a hug. I babble, and babble some more, saying ” oh my god oh my god oh my god have mercy” over and over again.

He rubs my shoulder and said “Yes, He did. Yes, He did.”

Griffey stays in his cage for the remainder of the day, just coming out to drink water, eat peanut butter and go to the potty. He does not bark. I debate about taking him to the vet, but believe that will freak him out even more; he would faint from the sheer overload on his nerves. He moves slowly but fluidly – with no hint of a lasting injury, just awful muscle soreness.

I am so grateful he is alive, in one piece, unscratched and unscathed, that I don’t even think about that honey locust being gone. At least not yet.

Last night, snow covered the ground, layering everything in a brand new sheet of white, clear and bright, hiding all the winter dirt for the evening. This morning, it started to melt in the sporadic sunshine.

Because the air was still cold but the changing angle of the sun is getting warmer and warmer, that white sheet melted in an almost perfect line, following the pattern of the sunshine as it shone across the house. It looks like the beginnings of a movie set before the designer has had a chance to make it look real, like the cotton under a Christmas tree that’s cut unnaturally straight by an unimaginative hand.

The sun goes in and out, behind clouds that are puffy and white, like June clouds confused about the calendar. The sky is blue, blue and true, not like early March at all. There is a strange juxtaposition of warm and cold, death and growth, sunshine and shade. It is almost spring.

There is a pine cone buried in that snow and then there are daylily leaves, tenderly unfurling, pale green, beneath last year’s dead leaves.

I am enjoying myself today, in the warmth and the sun, as I walk around the garden. I pick up a crumpled bit of paper here, a cigarette wrapping there. I take a good long look at the existing front bed, the butterfly bed, and think. I think about the new diagonal plan, the pathway that just can’t be grass long term, the raised bed that juts out almost to the property line now. To go diagonal, to give the path enough room, sedum will have to be moved and coreopsis transplanted somewhere. And then quite a bit of dirt will have to be dug up and moved too, to make this straight and true to the property line.

Or do I like the curvy beds and just need to emphasize those curves? That doesn’t solve my path problem in the least, but it would be a great deal less work.

The creeping phlox is starting to wake up, putting out stars of emerald in the fall leaves, among the mulch. The Damn Rabbits loved these buds and flowers last year; I really need to get out here with the bag of milorganite and a cup to help me toss it about on the at-risk plants. Tangled amidst the phlox is one of my favorites, also coming out of dormancy and putting out new buds – donkey tail spurge (is that a great name or WHAT?), euphoribia myrsinites. It’s a sage green and looks a great deal like a succulent cactus. It has yellow flowers and thick stems which ooze a wonderfully irritating liquid when cracked or (I love this part) bitten. Damn Rabbits hate it. Mingled with the phlox, the donkey tail may just help to save the buds. (This is called companion planting for those taking notes). Of course, the possibility exists that they’ll just eat around it.

I hear birds in the dried autumn clematis again. They will so disappointed soon when I cut it all down! I’d like to move the trellis that’s now trapped between the lattice and the vine to the purple clematis. The white trellis it is on now doesn’t have the same structure and it’s not as trendril-friendly as the trapped one. I check that purple clematis and see that many of the stems are already green inside, soft and plump. I will have to move rather quickly.

The trumpet vine is a real surprise. Last year, it sent up one branch, ridiculous and ineffective, barely leafed. This spring, I see over a dozen new stems, fountaining out of the crown. Trumpet vine should flower only on new wood, the current year’s growth, but I will not take chances with pruning yet. Once established, trumpet vine is extremely aggressive and need extensive pruning – I look forward to that if it brings the hummingbirds as reputed.

The lilac buds swell larger, round bottoms and pointy tips, reminding me of my Aunt Helen’s bosom. She had a simply enormous chest, absolutely legendary in the family (along with the rest of her body  – my mom’s side tends to be rather heavy – Polish genes, you know). Those monumental breasts were lifted, separated and then sharpened by her bra to points that could slice your eye out, a 50’s pin-up gone to complete seed, her conical breasts and bottle-red hair the only things left from her glory days. When you were required to hug Aunt Helen, you were never sure how to approach her. Did you go in from the side? Right between the torpedos? Best to wait until she was seated and do the shoulder hug from the back, avoiding the colossus completely.

She passed away when I was still in my own chesty days. I remember my mom called me that day. And, barely controlling her mirth, suggested I call the daughter to ask if I could have those bras.

It is snowing this morning, in perfect puffy clusters of flakes of perfect six-sided flakes, pointed and sharp and crystal clear.

I find the bag of thistle seed in the laundry room and put a bowl on the floor of the kitchen. With the bottom of my new seed sock in the bowl, I squeeze the bag of seed between my knees while tipping it into the sock that I’m holding with the other hand.

Feeling pretty talented in the large motor skills area right about now. Seed jumps out of the holes in the sock and most of it is caught in the bowl; there is a scattering all around on the floor. It looks like mouse droppings. I tighten the end of the sock and walk into the garden to hang it.

There! We are back in action, again a way station for those gold- and purple finches. I’ve missed them.

The glass-topped sticks sink into the ground, pink first and then blue. I should have bought five of them – wouldn’t that have been pretty, marching in a row along the flagstone? (My mother would make fun of me and peep “Birds and Blooms! Birds and Blooms!”, the name of this magazine I once found myself an unpaid subscriber of – filled with gardens stuffed with tchotkes, including bicycles and toilets – very high-class) I will make do with what I have and add in the older ones as the weather gets nicer and I pull them out of the attic.

Those garish metal daisies are sunk into the bed with the hydrangeas and the big grasses. I pull out the terrifically askew shepherd’s hook with the “Love Shack” bird house and push it back into the ground, now straight and true.

The snow increases. I crouch on the path, waiting for clusters to drop near me so I can make a photograph. Amazingly, the flakes swirl around, never landing near me – I am annoyed. I catch a few, here and there, but none are very successful images.

I see a bright patch of green, the blue fescue coming out of dormancy. I can see scads of eyes ripening on one of the new hydrangeas, the bellflower is greening up and the coral bells are starting to green as well.

The Damn Rabbits have been voracious; biting, chewing, snapping with those sharp vicious fangs. My foxglove is decimated, the spirea nubs – everywhere is evidence of their happiness with the fresh, tender salad bar. God, I hate ’em. Wednesday, I was at a client’s, a landscaper designer, out in Peotone. He showed me real Damn Rabbit damage, bushes with bark chewed completely off, yards and yards of twigs and branches just ruined, like a body with its skin removed in some twisted ritual of torture and sacrifice. Cambium exposed, those bushes now need replacing – dozens of them. It is so sad. They can’t eat the dandelions? the thistle bushes or sticker plants? The CLOVER, for cripes sake?!

Deep breath now….

The veggie garden brick edging has begun to collapse, blocks sliding into the center. Another spring todo…

In the butterfly bed, the liatris has gone to seed, black on the bottom and tan on the top, soft and fluffy in my fingers. I am confused because liatris is sold as a corms which is similar to a bulb but different (a bulb will have growing rings inside when cut apart; corms will not).

Sedum unfurls, green and waxy rosettes, more and more each day.

The daffodil leaves are bright lime on the top, deeper green on the bottom, that lime stretching farther and farther up towards the sun each day, more and more dark green emerging from the soil each day. More and more sprouts emerge each day. Every spring, I forget how full this bed really is, how the daffodils multiply underground and how those bulbs really love the heat from that sewage outtake. Sounds a little like Chernobyl, huh?

I look up and see a truly beautiful sight. My lilac bush, the one that did so very well its first summer, last summer, is covered in buds. Last summer, sitting here in the full sun, stored so much energy and food that we’ll get an even bigger show this spring. On the tip of each stem, twin buds like teardrops. Down the stem, more twins, every few inches. Inside every bud, dreams of purple and green and lush, sweet fragrance, all compacted into that tiny little space.

The snow is still heavier now, but I can only think of the lilacs.

We finished Master Gardening class today by 1:30. I checked email, voice mail, dealt with a few clients from the front seat of my car and then headed to Sid’s Nursery. Their annual garden show and expo started this morning and will run today and Saturday.

The first year Eliza and I went, we had to park far away and take a shuttle back to the facility. It was packed with vendors, packed with people, packed with seminars. She and I had hot dogs, pop and chips for lunch, gathered bags of samples and bought a really nifty wedge-shaped tool for planting annuals in soft soil.

The following year, just me and less vendors, less people. Last year, even worse but this year, because of the improving economy and the growing interest in vegetable gardening, sustainability and more, I figured it would be a better year.

Ack. My first tip off was when I received the invitation email just a few days before the event – obviously, they weren’t too worried about me blocking out the space on my calendar. When I pulled up to the building, I found a parking spot right in the front row, with empty spaces all around. Inside, there were no maps, no who’s who of who’s here.

I found a show special just inside the door, metals rods topped with glass ornaments, perfect for acting as a hose guide to protect plants while being much more attractive (and functional) than the usual stubby little things. Around the corner, I looked at seed packets and rejected them as being pricey. In the bird feeding section, I found a seed sock and put that in the basket.

The pond display was filled with koi, those huge, colorful and slightly (okay, very) creepy fish. They were halfway out of the water, mouths gulping, wide and open, so I could practically see down into their stomachs. They are bright, they are interesting and they are icky.

African violets were also a show special, only $3 each, so one of those went into the basket, with a sheet of care instructions.

African violets grew on my great-grandmother’s enclosed back porch and I always think of her (STELLA!) when I see them. She was a simply massive woman, truly mountainous, reigning over my aunt’s house in Polish. There were just a few times – Christmas, I think – that I saw her out of her throne, a chair at the head of the kitchen table, demanding things and ordering her daughters about in Polish, watching her angel fish in the tank next to her seat. I was fairly terrified of her. It was not a child-friendly house and spending time there, being still and quiet with no games, toys or amusements, was absolute torture. The biggest thrill was playing with the steel encased pop-up address book on the desk. And that got very boring very quickly.

There were only a handful of vendors and they were all listless and uninterested, so beyond ennui that they didn’t even pounce on me as I walked by. I wandered into the compost section but didn’t find anything of interest. Out through the covered hallway, into the big tent and more disappointments. Hardly anything out there, either. I was too late for the hot dogs, too late for the hydrangea drawings. I did get a tiny pot of sweet basil to plant in the garden.

I stopped by the Radius display to look for a good pair of bypass pruners, the kind recommended by Russ, a MG educator. There were two ladies standing there, commenting on the uniqueness of the handles. I couldn’t help myself and broke into an endorsement of the tools, how they are the best you can possibly buy, how I just wouldn’t consider any other brand. The salesman looked at me and smiled, gave me a coupon for $2 off my pruners. The ladies selected transplanters to purchase and I told them they would never regret it.

I overheard a gentleman saying what a disappointment the show was, how it was shrinking each year. I nodded my head in agreement. On the way back out of the tent, I found three more garden stakes, these purely ornamental, looking like bright gerber daisies, happy and springlike.

A display with a poem about fairies caught my eye and I read it, words about how fairies bring flowers and live it them too. At the top of the table was a birdbath and the saucer was filled with delicate plants and the most charming, tiny wire arbor with a bench, a birdbath and a wheelbarrow. Just the place for fairies.

I’ve tried fairy gardens before, using dollhouse furniture. It quickly blows over, gets smashed by enthusiastic Damn Rabbits, lost or carried off by Borrowers – or maybe it’s furnishing Francine and Clarence’s winter home. These items had long sticks to push into the dirt, holding them in place throughout the season. After some deliberation – do I need this, or just want it? (want won out) – I placed them in my basket. I found a pink pot in which to place my African violet and headed to the check out.

Enough happiness in my findings so the trip was not a total waste, but I do not think I will go next year.