Poetry and Gardening

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

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!