Poetry and Gardening

Musings from the days of a creative writer/gardener with a true appreciation for nature, meditation, and poetry.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Travel: Other People's Gardens

On a recent trip to London, I found myself looking in people's front/back yards and visiting as many gardens as possible.  I'd been there before, so I was familiar with the larger gardens (the Kew, for example), but this time, I thought about those smaller spaces that city people fill with whatever plants will fit.  Londoners are good at this.  Some windowsills overflowed with ivies and pansies, even though I couldn't see evidence of a windowbox.  Outside front doors, baskets of petunias added some bright colors to normally dingy brick buildings.  Pubs were especially cheery with hanging baskets, and roses bloomed in every square foot at the base of stairs leading into apartment buildings and offices.  But my favorite place was Kensington Gardens.

We walked from Buckingham Palace through Green Park (where we sat in deck chairs to watch streams of people passing by -- they charge for the deck chairs, but on a hot day in London, we happily paid the one pound five pence).  Then we wound our way down along Bayswater Road, enjoying the vendors with their artwork and admiring the stately hotels on the other side of the street.  At Hyde Park, we competed with groups of people who had come to the park for the triathlon being held that day.  Every major throughway was roped off so that bicyclists and runners could make their way to the end of the race and the tents set up near the Serpentine.  We sat at the Serpentine Restaurant for pizza and Cokes, watching Londoners in paddleboats on the lake before continuing our journey.

Little did we know how long our walk was, but by the time we reached Kensington Palace, we were ready for some cold drinks and rest.  It was the perfect place to sit for a moment.  Princess Diana's favorite place and her home while in London, Kensington is a smaller Palace, but no less stately than some of the others in England.  The gardens are formal, Italian in design, yet they have whimsical elements brought in by Queen Victoria and enjoyed by Diana herself.  When we were there, archways leading to the gardens, were alive with what appeared to be grapevines, and the gardens bloomed in hot pinks, reds, yellows, and deep purples. 

Of all the parks in London, this appeared to be the most family-friendly, probably because of the playground area built to memorialize Diana in 2000.  Because it was such a nice day, the area was full of happily-screaming kids climbing all over the pirate's ship and shimmying like eels over and around the other structures in what appeared to be the best public playground I've ever seen.  (We were not with children, so didn't get to explore in detail.)

Today's poem celebrates English gardens:

English Garden by Bernard Shaw

My love for an English garden,
It knows no bounds.
I will never have to ask for pardon,
As I stroll these lovely grounds.

Many are the shrubs, bushes and flowers,
They fill my heart with joy.
Here I have spent many happy hours,
For most of the flowers are shy and very coy.

Hollyhocks abound in every colour and hue,
Great delight I find in every nook and cranny.
A few of the flowers are for me new.
Most of the names I was taught by my dear Granny.

I have wandered around gardens of all kinds,
In most parts of this wonderful Earth.
There is something in a garden that my soul binds,
Nature shares with me every new birth.

But in an English garden such as Kew.
Gardeners put on a wonderful show.
That refreshes me through and through,
As I am sure it will you if you take the trouble to go.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Gift: Green Tree Frog

Every once in a while, you find a "friend" in the garden.  More often than not, it's a surprise, a little step back, an 'oooh,' then a smile and a laugh when you discover that "friend."  I find myself spending welcome time with those gifts and wanting to share them with other gardeners, or children, if they happen to be around.  Such was the case last night . . .

It's been exceptionally hot here in North Carolina lately, hovering around 100 degrees for the past four or five days.  Naturally, the garden suffers.  Colorful flowers start to droop, normally robust green leaves fold into themselves, everything tries to protect itself from the normally friendly sun.  We gardeners know that this is the time to help Mother Nature along a little and to provide some extra watering whenever possible.  I've been making it a point of trying to water in the morning, but last night, after a stunningly stifling day, I went to the porch to gather my watering pot and placed it under the faucet to fill while I put supper in the oven.  It's a big watering jug, so it takes several minutes for it to fill.  I didn't pay any attention to it until it sounded like it was near capacity, then turned back from the stove to use both hands to take the jug out to the porch.

When I reached for it, I noticed one spot on the handle was a brighter green than the rest of the jug and with a start, realized I had brought a rather large tree frog into the house with the pot.  He sat there, frozen into his spot, his fat little body anchored on the handle, even after I lifted the watering can to bring it outdoors.

All the way to the porch, I kept talking quietly (like the frog knew what I was saying), hoping he wouldn't hop off before I had gotten him outside.  My cat -- old as the hills but still spry -- seemed to realize that we had a "visitor" and would have been quite happy to follow him around the house had he hopped off, and I really didn't want to have a chase on my hands.

Outside, the frog remained on top of the watering can, so I started watering the geraniums near my door, then the pots of pansies that line the stairs.  Still, the frog sat on the handle.  I now had the chance to study him more closely -- the racing stripe down each side of his squat body, the large suction cups on his three-toed feet, the way his sides swelled with each breath. 

Still, he hung on.

By the time I got out to the mailbox to water the basket there, I noticed one of my neighbors taking a bike ride around the block with her little son, an adorable boy of five with light brown curls down to his shoulders and the most striking tiger-colored eyes.  He's a precocious kid, and I knew he'd get a kick out of the frog, so I called him over. 

His excitement spilled over, and though he reached out, he didn't touch the frog -- simply lowered his face so that his long lashes were almost close enough to touch the frog's body.  The conversation began.

"Does he like leaves?  Do you think if I give him some grass, he'll eat it?  Where does he live?  How high can he jump?"

We chattered for a while, and I shared my rather pitiful knowledge of what a tree frog does and what he eats.  Mostly, we just laughed every time the little frog moved.

We shared a good ten minutes of "frog time."  Then it was obvious the frog was done with us and wanted back to his natural habitat.  We let him go.  I went inside to get more water for the plants and told my husband of the adventure.  Then I realized I had no photographic evidence, so I went outside to see if I could still find the frog, and there he was -- hiding in the lip of my garbage can, enjoying what little shade it offered.  I took a photo with my phone and went inside, still smiling.

I love garden gifts!

The Frog by Hillaire Belloc

Be kind and tender to the Frog,

And do not call him names,

As "Slimy skin," or "Polly-wog,"

Or likewise "Ugly James,"

Or "Gap-a-grin," or "Toad-gone-wrong,"

Or "Bill Bandy-knees":

The Frog is justly sensitive

To epithets like these.

No animal will more repay

A treatment kind and fair;

At least so lonely people say

Who keep a frog (and, by the way,

They are extremely rare).

Thursday, July 1, 2010

W.S. Merwin: Poet Laureate

Though my garden is sprouting only Echinacea/Cone Flowers and my roses have been cut back to the quick of their lives (because of the rampant Japanese beetles), I have been thinking about gardening, still, and I realize that I need to continue writing about poetry and gardening, even if gardening is not uppermost in my mind at this moment.  I thought that I would devote today's blog to the items in my garden that are medicinal.  I was going to talk about echinacea and foxglove, but when the news came this morning that W.S. Merwin would be named poet laureate, I thought I would write about him instead.

Merwin is one of those poets with whom I connect on many different levels.  First of all, he grew up with those poets in the 1960s who wrote of freedom and activism; secondly, he is a Buddhist, thus I understand the weighted simplicity of his words; thirdly, he is committed to preserving the land beneath his feet, and since he lives in Hawaii, that land is exceptionally beautiful; and finally, I always thought he was one of the most romantically handsome of the poets who have written during the last thirty or so years.  (Look at some of his earlier photographs!)

I think we have made a good choice in Merwin, though I don't believe he'll do as many personal appearances as other poets.  He does have a distinctively American voice, unapologetic, multi-layered, full of angst about his family and the world around him.  I look forward to seeing what he will create for this country.

And, of course, he has written about gardens:

What is a garden

All day working happily down near the stream bed

the light passing into the remote opalescence

it returns to as the year wakes toward winter

a season of rain in a year already rich

in rain with masked light emerging on all sides

in the new leaves of the palms quietly waving

time of mud and slipping and of overhearing

the water under the sloped ground going on whispering

as it travels time of rain thundering at night

and of rocks rolling and echoing in the torrent

and of looking up after noon through the high branches

to see fine rain drifting across the sunlight

over the valley that was abused and at last left

to fill with thickets of rampant aliens

bringing habits but no stories under the mango trees

already vast as clouds there I keep discovering

beneath the tangle the ancient shaping of water

to which the light of an hour comes back as to a secret

and there I planted young palms in places I had not pondered

until then I imagined their roots setting out in the dark

knowing without knowledge I kept trying to see them standing

in that bend of the valley in the light that would come


The wet bamboo clacking in the night rain

crying in the darkness whimpering softly

as the hollow columns touch and slide

along each other swaying with the empty

air these are sounds from before there were voices

gestures older than grief from before there was

pain as we know it the impossibly tall

stems are reaching out groping and waving

before longing as we think of it or loss

as we are acquainted with it or feelings

able to recognize the syllables

that might be their own calling out to them

like names in the dark telling them nothing

about loss or about longing nothing

ever about all that has yet to answer

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Japanese Beetles: Scourge of the Rose Garden

I haven't written lately because I've been so depressed about how the Japanese Beetles have ravaged my roses.  I have been fighting them for the past couple of weeks and this morning when I went outside to pluck them off my trying-to-bloom roses, there were so many of them that I took out the big guns -- Sevin spray.  Even more irritating was that when I was spraying them, the sprayer stopped working, so I had to pour all of the Sevin into another bottle that I usually use to spray the roses for black spot.  Now the two are mixed together and I have no idea whether the combination will work for EITHER of the issues I currently have.

The beetles sit inside the rose buds or on the leaves and just eat, which means the rose never opens up to bloom, and if it's already open and I want to cut a bouquet, I usually end up going inside with a couple of the &*N)(*&$ things still in the flower (lots of fun if they fly off while I'm putting the roses in a vase!).  There have been times during my gardening career that I worked diligently to take care of this scourge naturally/organically.  I've plucked them off one by one, sticking them in the palm of my closed fist, and holding tight, feeling their squirming little bodies until I had twenty or thirty of them captured.  Then I've drowned them in a jar and kept the jar going until the cycle of beetles was done.  By the time the cycle was over, the jar had been filled more times than I could count.  And there have been seasons I've used the yellow plastic bags that Lowe's and Home Depot swore would take care of the population.  Every day, the bag would fill up with more and more beetles.  At least three or four times, I'd have to replace the bags.  Do you know how many beetles that constitutes?  Thousands!  I feel like those bags multiplied the beetle count rather than diminished it!

This year, I'm just shooting them with chemicals, which I hate, but at least the count seems to be down a bit.

So, right now, I'm hating the garden.

The only thing that's blooming well is the Echinacea, which is starting to darken up and become the light purple the flowers are supposed to be.  I have no idea why they start out pale and sickly looking.  Wonder if it's because they're near my air-conditioning unit.  Whatever.

Oh, and the back garden is doing okay.  The geraniums are happy and creating a pink border around the edge, near the rocks I collected and placed there one by one last summer.  And the Mums and Bachelor Buttons are pretty cheery, even though they're sparse.  I wish the garden itself would fill in more, but none of the seeds I planted will grow.  It's got to be that it's in partial shade and the soil stinks (even though I've amended it more than once).

Today's poetry selection is about a garden incident that's pretty bleak (like mine!).

Incident in a Rose Garden: Donald Justice


Sir, I encountered Death

Just now among our roses

Thin as a scythe he stood there.

I knew him by his pictures

He had on his black coat

Black gloves, and broad black hat.

I think he would have spoken,

Seeing his mouth stood open.

Big it was, with white teeth.

As soon as he beckoned, I ran.

I ran untill I found you.

Sir, I'm quitting my job.

I want to see my sons

Once more before I die.

I want to see California.


Sir, you must be that stranger

Who threatened my gardener.

This is my property, sir.

I welcome only friends here.


Sir, I knew your father.

And we were friends at the end.

As for your gardener,

I did not threaten him.

Old men mistake my gestures.

I only ment to ask him

To show me to his master.

I take it you are he?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Emily Dickinson: Gardener-Poet

As I watered the gardens and hanging plants last night (wondering why they were drooping, since we'd just had a fairly long spurt of rain), I thought about all the women and men who have spent their years tending gardens, getting just as much soul-tending from the plants that grew from the ground beneath them as those plants got from the gardeners' hands.  I share gardening stories with my sister and certain friends, but I truly appreciate those gardeners who shared words about nature with the world around them.

On the radio this morning, NPR had a story about Emily Dickinson, who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, and was better known in her lifetime for her gardening than for the poetry she wrote.  Yet, she gardened every day in a simple white cotton dress with whatever poem she was working on tucked into one of her pockets.  I imagine her watching for the first foxgloves to pop their heads from the ground, smiling at the white-faced daisies she loved, and pulling those errant weeds that disdainfully rose between hydrangeas and herbs. 

Though she relished her privacy and alone time, she wrote about the people around her:  her family, nieces/nephews, neighbors.  Her poetry shows her true love, however -- her gardens.  And though the poems she wrote might be of a child's death or a family moment, somehow she always managed to toss in a garden metaphor.

Here's one of my favorite Dickinson poems:


FROM cocoon forth a butterfly

As lady from her door

Emerged—a summer afternoon—

Repairing everywhere,

Without design, that I could trace, 5

Except to stray abroad

On miscellaneous enterprise

The clovers understood.

Her pretty parasol was seen

Contracting in a field 10

Where men made hay, then struggling hard

With an opposing cloud,

Where parties, phantom as herself,

To Nowhere seemed to go

In purposeless circumference, 15

As ’t were a tropic show.

And notwithstanding bee that worked,

And flower that zealous blew,

This audience of idleness

Disdained them, from the sky, 20

Till sundown crept, a steady tide,

And men that made the hay,

And afternoon, and butterfly,

Extinguished in its sea.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Amaryllises and Pots: Different Types of Gardens

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be in three museums within the span of two days. Eye candy. Heart fulfilling. Brain expanding. Nothing like a gray, rainy day in a light-filled space filled with great art. Surprisingly, both art museums (the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Nasher Museum at Duke University) filled their outside space with "gardens" of sculptures. I've already talked about the one at NC Museum of Art, but the one at the Nasher is just as impressive.

Mark Hewitt, a North Carolina based potter (we have GREAT potters in this state), has created some extremely large, beautifully fired pieces that combine the grace of symmetrical design with the unique salt glazes he can obtain in his firing process. Each one has small details (like touches of cobalt blue color in impressed squares) that draw you to examine them closer. But what is best about his work is that the arrangement of pots in a grassy outdoor setting creates a type of garden element that is both permanent and changing. With each shift of light, the glazes take on a varying shade and appear to shimmer like the tones of a mountain lake. I walked away wanting at least two of his pieces in my backyard woodland garden.

The other garden story that has happened this week is that my amaryllis bulbs have bloomed, and they are one of the best gifts I get from the earth every year. I've carried my pink and white amaryllis bulbs with me from house to house throughout the past twenty years. They started in Florida, where everyone told me they wouldn't grow in the hot summer weather. The flowers not only bloomed, but they were so large that people driving by would literally stop and ask me what they were. Shell pink with throats that appear coated in diamonds, my amaryllis are hardy, disease-free, and long-lasting. The only thing I don't like about them is that they're not year-round. I'm sure you'll agree that they are among the most gorgeous flowers I have published on this blog.

We have had a lot of rain lately, so both the back and front gardens are blooming and healthy. I'm hoping to go to a garden center this weekend with my daughter to find some plants that can deal with hot and dry weather since I think that's what we're heading towards, but for now, I leave you with this poem.


Once, when I wandered in the woods alone,

An old man tottered up to me and said,

“Come, friend, and see the grave that I have made

For Amaryllis.” There was in the tone

Of his complaint such quaver and such moan

That I took pity on him and obeyed,

And long stood looking where his hands had laid

An ancient woman, shrunk to skin and bone.

Far out beyond the forest I could hear

The calling of loud progress, and the bold

Incessant scream of commerce ringing clear;

But though the trumpets of the world were glad,

It made me lonely and it made me sad

To think that Amaryllis had grown old.

----Edwin Arlington Robinson

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Other Types of Gardens: Rodin's Sculptures

This weekend, it was either raining or I was busy with other things and couldn't get out to the garden.  But it's doing well, and now that the rain has lasted several days, I'm sure I'll have plenty to take care of during the upcoming weekend. 

Even though I wasn't in my own garden recently, I did spend some time at Rodin's Garden at the North Carolina Arts Museum yesterday.  My art instructor and I were there for a meeting about advocating for the arts in our state, and every time I go to that museum something has changed, but this time there were major changes.  The museum just opened several new buildings and showcased their collection of Rodin sculptures in a simple, Zen-like garden that opens off one of the large airy spaces inside the building.  Set among groups of bamboo and surrounding a lotus pond, Rodin's sculptures stood in spaces quite apropos to their stunning power.  One (I didn't get its title) moved me quite deeply:  a wraithlike figure in a cloak with a face so powerfully eloquent, big empty eyes and pain etched deeply into the folds of his cheeks.  I took several photos and have included them here since they speak far more distinctly than I can at this moment.  (By the way, there was only one lotus flower in bloom, and it was perfectly positioned for this photograph.)

During my travels in Greece, I was always looking for examples of the three muses.  This one is the best I've seen, and to see it up close is amazing.  Each muscle is clearly and cleanly defined, and the expressions on their faces are beyond eloquence.

The final one is an armless female dancer.  I'm not quite sure why Rodin chose to remove what probably was the most expressive part of her body, but this one evokes the Greeks more than any other.  (The pile of "wood" in the back is another sculpture -- huge and awkward.)

Today's poem is about a Rodin sculpture (forgive me for moving away from the garden theme for a moment) and written by Carl Sandburg.


LEGS hold a torso away from the earth.

And a regular high poem of legs is here.

Powers of bone and cord raise a belly and lungs

Out of ooze and over the loam where eyes look and ears hear

And arms have a chance to hammer and shoot and run motors.

You make us

Proud of our legs, old man.

And you left off the head here,

The skull found always crumbling neighbor of the ankles.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Baskets and Hand-me-downs

This morning as I was remaking the baskets that hang on my front porch, I started thinking about the parts of my garden that came from someone else.  One of the things all gardeners know is that the beauty of a plentiful garden is that it brings new friends, and we also have the opportunity of sharing some of that bounty with others, which means we make even more new friends.  I remember my grandmother taking cuttings from her plants and rooting them, giving them to her sister-in-law, as well as to the women who lived in the houses nearby.  She would stand on the street in her shirtwaist dress, chatting with the women as she passed along her cuttings, and she would come inside afterward with stories of the other women's lives.  My grandfather would sit at the kitchen table and nod as he listened, not quite interested but listening nonetheless.

I don't have any pieces from my grandmother in my garden because I wasn't gardening when she passed away, but I do have memories of her anyway.  The gladioli that are sprouting in my side gardens are in memory of her.  Every time they bloom, I think of the tall, pastel-colored glads that lined her driveway, and I laugh a little because my mother used to call them funeral flowers.  Unlike my grandmother, who loved them, my mother despised them.

The roses I've grown for years are for my mother, who loved them even though she was painfully allergic to them.  One of my favorite bushes, the Tropical Sunset, was a gift from one of my best friends, Ellyn.  Though Ellyn is across the country in California, I share news of her rose bush every year, telling her when they are in bloom and sending photos of the most spectacular blossoms on the bush.

The peace/white roses and the red climber were gifts from my husband for Valentine's Day.  He had always given me beautiful bouquets of roses (earning him the nickname "The Rose Guy") when we were first dating, and at one point, I said that the bouquets were incredibly expensive but that the roses I could grow in the ground would give me a constant bouquet.  At that point, he stopped buying bouquets and started giving me bushes.  Okay by me!

The cannas that are beginning to multiply in my back garden came from a work friend who had way too many of them last year.  She shared a garbage bag full with me, and I spent a long weekend planting them throughout the back gardens.  I expect there will be more and more every year, and I'll think of her when they come into bloom.

I have done my fair share of sharing, and my friend Lynn told me just recently that she loved the irises I gave her last year.  They are blooming -- a rich purple -- across the street, and I love that they are there.

Now, the baskets . . . the pansies were drooping and though I kept some of them in there, I don't think they're long for this world.  I've repacked the baskets with trailing verbena (purple -- my fav color) and hope that they're going to thrive since we're heading into the hot and humid part of the year.  Summer in North Carolina!

Here's a poem about summer gardens:

Back Yard

by Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon of summer.

Shine to the leaves of grass, catalpa and oak,

All silver under your rain to-night.

An Italian boy is sending songs to you to-night from an accordion.

A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month;

to-night they are throwing you kisses.

An old man next door is dreaming over a sheen that sits in a

cherry tree in his back yard.

The clocks say I must go—I stay here sitting on the back porch drinking

white thoughts you rain down.

Shine on, O moon,

Shake out more and more silver changes.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Changes: To Move or Not to Move

This weekend, I spent part of my Mother's Day with my daughter, showing her that her hanging baskets were not dead--as she thought--but just needed some dead-heading.  As we sat on her apartment balcony pulling the dead heads off her baskets of petunias and just chatting about nothing, I experienced a peacefulness I usually only feel when I'm in the garden alone.  It was one of those moments I'm going to remember until I die, and I do hope she'll store it in her treasure trove of mother-daughter memories, as well. 

That brilliant future memory spawned others from the past for me.

I remember my grandmother's hands fussing over the many pots of green "things" she kept in her dining room window on Baker Road in Everett, Massachusetts.  It isn't her face I remember in this memory, but her hands.  In other moments, it's her back as she bends down to pull a weed. She had a watering can with a thin long spout and would occasionally let me water the ferns and ivies that crowded the top of her dining room buffet.  Later, I learned she had painted that water can herself, decorating it with a shaded rose, as she had done with many other things in her light-filled apartment.  Her knowledge of color and shape grew from studying the gardens she kept and generated into the artistic touch she had when decorating her home.  I often wonder, now that I have her sketches in my possession, whether she dreamt of being something other than a housekeeper and gardener. 

Outside that dining room window,  a thin swatch of garden grew along the driveway into the paved back yard.  That swatch overflowed with daylilies, irises, daisies, foxgloves -- all the old cottage flowers that make a happy panoply of color against any house.  The birds loved Nana's city gardens and populated the birdhouse she hung right outside the kitchen window.  I sat there with my grandfather, eating graham crackers and milk, while he identified the birds who visited the window:  "Those are cardinals.  See how the female is a duller shade of red than the male?  Look at him puffing his chest.  And those little brown ones.  See there?  They're sparrows.  The blue one making all the noise?  Jays.  I can't stand jays.  That little one--see that one with the black face?  That's a finch."  We could watch them flutter inches away from our cereal bowls, and I found myself fascinated by the hummingbirds that occasionally found their way to the watering spout.  They were rare and mystical, their purple wings glittering as they fluttered so quickly, they became a blur of shine.  Those days defined summer for me and were the genesis of my life as a gardener.

Now, I know that the gardens don't sprout that way magically, as I once thought they did, but that they take a lot of work and planning.  Designing that space is as much a work of art as creating a canvas.  Choosing the colors, shapes, and textures determine the final product.  And even then, the product might have to change -- and that change is not something the gardener often has a choice in making.  Yet that change is necessary for the life of the garden.  That, in itself, taught me volumes about the changes you make as a human being in order to adjust to what life thrusts in our way.

This brings me to the changes I must think about for my garden.  The roses are not doing well, and I know it's because the garden has grown so much that they're having a tough time breathing.  I must move them, but that project is a large one and needs major planning.  I'm considering cutting another garden that will give an entrance to the side yard in the back of my house.  I could put in another archway and frame it with the LadyBanks Roses on one side and the red rambler I have on the other.  I could move the shrub roses to each side of that archway so they would be in the sun and have breathing room.  The rose garden would give us some privacy in the backyard and take advantage of the fact that I haven't been able to successfully grow grass back there anyway.  Maybe I could just mulch the whole back area up to the shady natural space and use it for the roses, give up on the grass . . .

To move or not to move.  The poem I've chosen for today reflects the difficulties of gardening decisions, and the ever-changing color map of the garden and of life itself.

this is the garden: colours come and go

by ee cummings

this is the garden: colours come and go,

frail azures fluttering from night's outer wing

strong silent greens serenely lingering,

absolute lights like baths of golden snow.

This is the garden: pursed lips do blow

upon cool flutes within wide glooms,and sing

(of harps celestial to the quivering string)

invisible faces hauntingly and slow.

This is the garden. Time shall surely reap

and on Death's blade lie many a flower curled,

in other lands where other songs be sung;

yet stand They here enraptured,as among

The slow deep trees perpetual of sleep

some silver-fingered fountain steals the world.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Late Spring: Tropical Sunsets and Thunderstorms

Last night, we were listening to the nightly news and the boom-boom-boom of a distant thunderstorm made us mute the anchor-woman to listen.  The booms came on a regular basis from several different directions, dancing around us like a moving conga line.  We waited and waited for the soft hush of falling rain or for the crackle of lightning, but the booms tangoed away, leaving us as dry as we had been the day before. 

When I watered the geraniums and zinnias that are waiting to be planted in my back garden last night, they had drooped over the edges of their containers.  They need to be in the ground, but the ground is cracked, and I'm worried that there isn't enough moisture for them to take hold in the garden.  I was hoping that we'd get rain last night so the ground would be a little less parched.  No such luck.

In spite of the rain, the Tropical Sunset roses that are blooming in my front garden are fiery and painterly this morning.  The roses start out a deep orange when they're still tight, but as they open, their colors change to a lighter orange streaked with golden yellow, then to peach, and when they are finally open, the peach has lightened even more and the yellow become a little pale, just as sunsets do when they're fading.  The blooms are so perfectly painted with streaks of color that it seems some fine other-worldly brush has deemed them to be more artistic than any other creation.  This is the reason I love roses so much.

And for today's poem, Edna St. Vincent Millay's voice seems appropriate.

Sonnets 06: No Rose That In A Garden Ever Grew by Edna St. Vincent Millay

No rose that in a garden ever grew,

In Homer's or in Omar's or in mine,

Though buried under centuries of fine

Dead dust of roses, shut from sun and dew

Forever, and forever lost from view,

But must again in fragrance rich as wine

The grey aisles of the air incarnadine

When the old summers surge into a new.

Thus when I swear, "I love with all my heart,"

'Tis with the heart of Lilith that I swear,

'Tis with the love of Lesbia and Lucrece;

And thus as well my love must lose some part

Of what it is, had Helen been less fair,

Or perished young, or stayed at home in Greece.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Frustrations: Black Spot and Shade

For the past few days, I've watched the healthy climbing rose that has bloomed a deep, hearty red for the first time in the four years since I've lived at the house become a yellow mess.  The leaves are all falling off, littering my front porch and spreading their spores all over the ground.  It's Black Spot, and I'm tired of dealing with it, especially since it seems to happen overnight!  Now, I know I'll lose this climber, and it's probably going to spread to the bush next to it (which has hot pink blooms that aren't as tight as I would like a rose to be and when they bloom, they instantly fall off), and to the others in the garden (I have a Tropical Sunset bush that is currently in bloom, and around the corner, a Peace rose, then an antique bush that's deep red -- almost black -- and the most pungent of all of them).  Nothing I do that's organic helps Black Spot.  I've tried the dish detergent/baking soda mixture, as well as several others, but they don't help.  The only thing that has worked in the past is a very strong chemical that I bought at the rose center nearby, but it was pretty expensive ($60, if memory serves me correctly). 

This is one of the heartbreaks of growing roses.

Perhaps if I pulled all the bushes out and created a more open-air type of rose garden, it would take care of some of my issues, but I really like the climbers, and obviously, they have to have somewhere to climb.  I'm going to visit Witherspoon Rose Culture, a nursery that handles nothing but roses and is a wealth of information, as soon as I can, but in the meantime, I think I'm going to have to cut them all back, which breaks my heart.

The other frustration I'm having lately is dealing with my backyard gardens.  I worked on rebuilding the soil last year so that I could start a "cottage garden" on the sunny edge of my natural area.  I've planted some bulbs, put in more than thirty packages of seeds (another ten packages this past weekend), and have nursed it along, but it's drier than the moon out there and just as cracked.  I'm going to have to put in just plants/flowers that will deal with dry shade.

If there's anyone out there who could offer advice, I'm open to suggestions!

Today's poems is not about the frustrations with roses, but rather about why we grow them to begin with . . .

Roses by George Eliot

You love the roses - so do I. I wish

The sky would rain down roses, as they rain

From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?

Then all the valley would be pink and white

And soft to tread on. They would fall as light

As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be

Like sleeping and like waking, all at once!

Friday, April 30, 2010

The Ride: Misty Horses and Secret Gardens

On my way to work every morning, I listen to NPR and just put the car on cruise control (I have WAY too many tickets!).  I pass ponds resplendent with a gaggle of geese and swans, pastures where horses graze and make perfect silhouettes against the mist, clean green meadows and rolling hills. This morning, the combination of warm ground and cool air created a low-hanging mist that floated over the geese and ducks and hovered around the edges of the pond where the horses graze. It was so ethereal that I stopped to take a picture to capture the moment.

 And once I get into town where the college is located, I pass one of my favorite gardens.

Every once in a while when the weather is warm, the woman who owns the garden is outside weeding or watering her plants.  I've longed to stop and ask her if I can look at the back gardens that I get only brief glimpses of as I glide by (I always slow down when I'm passing her house), but I don't want to scare her.  I come by very early in the morning, and I know that sometimes when I see her, she's not yet out of her bathrobe.  Someday, I'll stop and we'll talk gardening.

Her bearded irises are in bloom, lining the driveway with their dark purple heads glistening with the morning dew.  Against the driveway side of the little house, deep purple clematis vines snake up white latticework.  The clematis are fat and healthy, and I'm jealous of them because no matter how hard I try, I cannot grow them (I "settle" with my climbing roses).  In the backyard, I can see more irises and splatches of other colors, but that little glimpse just sweetens my appetite for more.

Here's one of Rita Dove's poems, appropriately titled to fit this blog . . .

The Secret Garden by Rita Dove

I  was ill, lying on my bed of old papers,

when you came with white rabbits in your arms;

and the doves scattered upwards, flying to mothers,

and the snails sighed under their baggage of stone . . .

Now your tongue grows like celery between us:

Because of our love-cries, cabbage darkens in its nest;

the cauliflower thinks of her pale, plump children

and turns greenish-white in a light like the ocean’s.

I was sick, fainting in the smell of teabags,

when you came with tomatoes, a good poetry.

I am being wooed. I am being conquered

by a cliff of limestone that leaves chalk on my breasts.

Rita Dove, “The Secret Garden” from Yellow House on the Corner (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989). Copyright ©1989 by Rita Dove. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Yellow House on the Corner (1989)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring: Climbing Roses and New Robin's Nest

Every day something new is born in my garden.  This morning as I left, I had to take a few pictures of the climbing roses on my front porch.  It's the first time they've bloomed since I planted them four years ago.  They're deep red and at least four small blossoms to the end of each shoot.  Now that I know they don't like to be cut back, maybe I'll get blooms every year.  Between the roses and irises, I have lots of color out front now, but the greatest surprise was in the backyard.  A robin flew from under the LadyBanks roses over my archway, so I poked around and realized the reason she was there:  a nestful of newly born babies.  Yup, spring is here!

As always, a poem to associate with my subject.  Today's choice is perfect:  Emily Dickinson's "For Every Bird A Nest."

For every Bird a Nest --

Wherefore in timid quest

Some little Wren goes seeking round --

Wherefore when boughs are free --

Households in every tree --

Pilgrim be found?

Perhaps a home too high --

Ah Aristocracy!

The little Wren desires --

Perhaps of twig so fine --

Of twine e'en superfine,

Her pride aspires --

The Lark is not ashamed

To build upon the ground

Her modest house --

Yet who of all the throng

Dancing around the sun

Does so rejoice?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Texas: Blue Bonnets and Roses that climb trees

This weekend, my husband and I traveled to East Texas to visit family members he hadn't known existed.  It was the first time I'd visited his home town of Carthage, and though he's prepared me ahead of time, I could not have imagined how much the trip would have affected both of us.

The drive from Dallas--more than two hours--was rainy and misty, and the bluebonnets Lady Bird Johnson had arranged to have planted on the sides of most Texas roads many years ago were not quite in bloom.  But all along the highway, some color shown through the rain to remind us that spring had hit Texas weeks earlier.  Azaleas, just about over their blooming season; some Black-eyed Susans (early, I think!); and in the small town of Carthage:  roses.

It amazes me that roses bloom just about everywhere, in every type of soil, and even in places where no other flower dare show its face.  But there is one difference:  the roses that bloom in the poorer parts of Carthage appear to hold on determinedly, even to the point of grabbing the nearest permanent structure and sticking in their thorny fingers to hang on to that structure long after human beings have abandoned it.  We saw red-red roses against abandoned shacks, climbing along the ruins of cement stairs that led to nowhere, and one hardy climber rose into the skinny branches of a tree starved for water, spilling its blossoms where the leaves should have been, climbing so high that it seemed the rose had taken over for what the tree could no longer produce.

The town of Carthage has endured racism and poverty, yet their city square boasted an elaborate gazebo donated long ago by a book club.  The square, embroidered with full-blossomed azaleas, is the brightest color in Carthage -- except for some houses on the other side of town that played host to rose gardens of a different hue. 

Those "wealthier" rose gardens, squared and formal, had pink and yellow roses, white and peach colored ones, and shades of blue and purple that don't seem quite normal for roses.  Yet though I consider myself a rose lover and ooh'd and aah'd over the richness of those formal gardens, it is that one hardy climber that took over a tree and bled its maroon blossoms high above the shack beside it that stands in my mind.

Today, I'm choosing a poem by Langston Hughes to pay homage to that rose and to the rains that brought us into Carthage.

"April Rain Song" by Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spring Rain: May Flowers

Before I left for work this morning, I went out onto the porch to check to see if the hanging baskets needed watering, and it was sprinkling softly:  that fine light mist that the flowers love.  If they could have spoken, my pansies would have simply sighed . . . ahhhhh.  They lifted their maroon and pink heads out of their baskets, their faces open and welcoming, more live than I've seen them in the past couple of weeks.  "We needed this!" they were crying.  Instead of watering them with tap water, I moved the Gerbera Daisy, the pots of pansies, and the hosta that I need to repot and placed them all in rows on the stairs where they could get a thirst-quencher.

On the way out of the drive, the basket hanging on the mailbox called to me.  It's still growing, still reaching for the peak as springtime flowers do, and I know it'll be a short time before I'll have to replace the pansies with something that can endure the hot North Carolina sun, so I took a picture of it for today's post.

All morning, the rain has been falling here on campus, creating dark black and mossy green trunks on the trees, defining them with a "weather pen" so they stand out against the new light green growth and the darker underbellies of the shrubs beyond them.  The old oaks that grace our courtyard are stately and strong, home to hundreds of squirrels and robins (whose nests must be barren most of the time since the squirrels are robber barons of the gardening world). 

Last night, when I walked through the courtyard to my car, one of the fat groundhogs who live in the field behind our buildings brazenly scuffled through the low, ground-covering that banks one of the curved areas near the science building.  Several of us spotted him, tubby brown belly and perfectly oval head, standing almost straight up, sniffing the air as if deciding where supper might best be found.  I sensed a little fear in the humans around me, because the groundhog stood almost three feet tall, but no fear from him at all.  The moment reminded me of a poem by Christopher Marlowe.  I have no idea why.  But that's what I'll share with you today.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,

Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,

By shallow rivers to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses

And a thousand fragrant posies,

A cap of flowers, and a kirtle

Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool

Which from our pretty lambs we pull;

Fair lined slippers for the cold,

With buckles of th purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,

With coral clasps and amber studs:

And if these pleasures may thee move,

Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing

For thy delight each May morning:

If these delights thy mind may move,

Then live with me and be my love.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Plowing: Turning over a new field

In the fields in my area of northern North Carolina, the plows are raking the fields and turning over the cold earth to the springtime sun, readying the dirt for planting. Some farmers use a simple north-to-south technique in plowing, while others go side-to-side/east-to-west, but the ones that are the most geometric start with a very short corner row and go perpendicular from there.

To me, plowing is a metaphor for new beginnings. Plows open the ground to new opportunities, new possibilities, and fresh hope. Just like humans who start new relationships or begin new careers or start taking classes with the goal of creating a new opportunity for themselves, the ground also has a future for which to prepare. With that fresh start also comes preparation for the possible disappointments: not enough rain, bad seeds, too much rain, deer/rabbits/other varmints who eat bright and green leaves/shoots, disease.

I think of my rose bushes and what they look like right now: dark green leaves etched in deep purple or maroon, buds on almost every branch, ready to pop into blossom within the week. I want to enjoy them, to see the tight pink tea roses and the bright (and humorously-named) miniature bushes, and the antique wine-colored rose that has the deepest and most sensual scent. But under those leaves hide a few yellow ones covered in the dreaded black spot. I know that the possibility of that disease spreading is something I can bank on, and that unless I get out into the garden every four or five days and clean it up, treat for the disease, and keep a vigilant eye, I will not be able to enjoy the beauties that the roses should produce. Same for the farmers currently plowing their fields.

As much as I am against smoking and wish that the rest of the world would be, as well, I have to admit that the tobacco fields currently being plowed are using the earth that would normally lie fallow, and those squat, wide-leafed plants will give me an additional green growth to watch sprout and spread throughout the summer months.

This poem, by poet Orval Lund, a retired English professor who lives in Minnesota, was originally published in a collection called Casting Lines: Poems, published by New River Press. It expresses that act of plowing in a way I think the tobacco farmers of this area of the country would understand.

"Plowing" by Orval Lund

Crawling steady at a slight slant,

smooth waves of sliced and shiny earth spiraling

behind, the engine droning, the floor-hum tickling

your feet, the big yellow Moline fenders

defining your cabin, you're much alone

on flat fields, not a tree in sight, seagulls,

a punctuation in the sky, hovering

for worms sliced and tossed atop.

At field's end, you jerk the frayed rope to raise

the plow. The shiny, scoured blades climb

out, the tractor takes its little step

up to sod, sighing from its upright pipe, and you turn

and steer your right wheel toward

the clean square trough, then jerk the cord to drop

the plow; the tractor grunts, hunkers

down, squares its shoulders, snorts and starts again.

Again, the engine's drone, the scrape

of stone on steel. You can feel

your back relax, the tingle in your feet, can smell

dark earth and remember a day

you prepared the field for growth,

the rolling sod streaming back and scouring

shares to a shine, the poetry

of straight black lines across a flat field.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The first one: Blake on Spring

This blog will be dedicated to my garden, as well as to poems about gardening (by both the classic poets, as well as by me).

I decided on the way to work this morning that the North Carolina early morning light really warms my trip. On the way to Roxboro, North Carolina from North Durham, I pass farms, tobacco fields, horse pastures, and rolling hills. Right now, azaleas are in bloom, and one particular house -- a small, vintage ranch home of no particular beauty -- boasted five large azalea bushes, each a different color, and each in full bloom: hot pink, orange, white, purple, and light pink. They looked spectacular from the road as I passed by, shining indiscretely, delicate yet robust, heavy with the early morning dew, and I thought how sad it was that they have little perfume for all their beauty.

I don't have any azaleas in the woody area behind my house. I keep reminding myself to plant some each year (I have lived in this home for four years), but the thought of digging around the numerous tree roots in the back yard deters me every time. If I could, I'd hire someone to plant at least twenty-four various colored azaleas under the pine and elm trees, but for now, I have to enjoy the azaleas I see along my twenty-plus mile ride to work every day.

Instead, I have Ladybanks Roses climbing over an archway at the bottom of the stairs leading to my deck. Their pale yellow mini roses are full and antique looking. They all appear to blossom simultaneously -- overnight, almost -- and hang like drunken Easter hats, spilling over the curves of the arch. They are early spring bloomers and often last a month or so, depending upon the weather. I was first introduced to this climber when we lived in Raleigh, and they grew up and over the gazebo on the second floor of my deck. I don't know how old they were, but I suspect they were almost nine years by the time we moved in. I went by that house the other day, and they were covering the deck like they did when we were there -- a completely sunshiny blanket of privacy that made that area of the deck perfect for a morning coffee and newspaper, even if still in my bathrobe.

For today, this poem is perfect:

"To Spring" by William Blake

O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down

Thro' the clear windows of the morning, turn

Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,

Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!

The hills tell each other, and the listening

Valleys hear; all our longing eyes are turned

Up to they bright pavilions: issue forth,

And let the holy feet visit our clime.

Come o'er the eastern hills, and let our winds

Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste

Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls

Upon our love-sick land that mourns for thee.

O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; our

Thy soft kisses on her bosom; and put

Thy golden crown upon her languished head,

Whose modest tresses were bound up for thee.