If You Can’t Stand the Heat …

The tomatoes throwing a party in July for their rambunctious friends.

Sisyphus had it easy. All he had to do was push a boulder up a hill, over and over and over again.

I empathize with Sisyphus, although for me it’s not a boulder I’m doomed to fight, but a mudslide of misplaced horticultural enthusiasm. Each spring I start out standing, proud to plant anything I see, until I wind up weeding in a sweat down upon my knees. Gardening is a humbling pursuit.

The truth is nobody outgrows Mother Nature. She says “Grow” and it groweth. I nurture little seeds, feed them the best nutrients, plant them out in beautifully blended soil, water them faithfully, and then sit back and watch the slaughter. Because I eschew pesticides, I have no shortage of wormy bugs chowing down on the greenery. Not to mention the squirrels digging up the seedlings the minute they get settled in. And, of course, the rabbits. Feh.

Yet, in spite of all the pushback, the plants themselves don’t seem as discouraged as I would be in their roots. Somehow, once the garden gets going, roundabout June, it keeps accelerating until it hits some kind of jungle overdrive, rocketing high, wide and plentiful, as if it had only one season in which to say it all.

Well. This is nice up to a point, until the Sisyphian nature of Nature begins to tilt the game board. By late summer, unless we’ve been scorched by drought, I usually find myself in a different sort of battle, trying to rein in the madness. Anyone who’s tried to hack their way through a blackberry thicket in mid-July knows what I’m talking about. A suit of chainmail might protect you from the thorns and stinging flies, but it’s no picnic being steamed in your own sweat.

That’s where I am now. If it’s not global warming, it’s close enough for me. We’re not even through May and I’m already feeling August. Hah hah. Who needs a boulder?

Hot Foot

Dumb bunny?

So did you hear the latest extinction news? According to the most recent United Nations study on biodiversity there has been a “catastrophic decline” in wild animal species worldwide in just the last fifty years. At the same time, the loss of ecosystems worldwide has radically diminished the number of amphibians, marine mammals and coral reefs.

This can’t be good for humans. But at this point I wonder if the humans driving the planet into extinction overdrive are capable of putting on the brakes. It’s not like this is the first time overwhelming evidence has shown the folly of our behavior and the high cost of all our cheap disposable production. And, as Dylan once put it, “the hour is getting late.” There may one day be nobody left on Earth but us and the cows. And of course the chickens. We’ll be well and truly clucked.

I used to get very upset about this prospect, twenty, thirty years ago. I’d shake my head and wonder what was wrong with us that we couldn’t see what a mess we were making of this gorgeous planet. Lately I’ve been trying to envision a future that doesn’t require pixie dust or guns or gas masks in order for the human race to continue. So far, the best I can imagine is that, when the Blue Ridge becomes beachfront property, and the last honeybee has gone the way of the dodo, there may still be a few humans scratching out a meager existence in a cave somewhere. And if they can hang on for a millennium or two, maybe the oceans will recede and we’ll get another shot at this civilization thing.

Or, alternatively, we’re toast, and rabbits will inherit the earth. They weren’t my first pick in the survival lottery, but as a gardener I’ve been humbled by their relentless persistence. They’re fast running, fast breeding, and they’ll eat anything. Plus, they’re fine with living underground, which will no doubt be helpful once the ozone shield is gone and the surface of the planet becomes a hotplate.

So, there’s the future for our great-grandchildren. Living in caves, eating rabbit if they’re lucky. I don’t know if they’ll be happy kids. But they won’t know there was any other life, since there won’t be any electricity or other nifty technology to amuse them. Hopefully they’ll still have the moon and the stars to enjoy.

Unless we manage to muck up that neighborhood too. I’d sooner eat rabbit.

Deep Rooted Soul

Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.
Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.

If you fly into Seattle and head north on I-5 to the city, you will not see The Kubota Garden on the way. Even if you notice the modest sign for the turnoff, you may be in too much of a hurry to reach other destinations to visit this gem hidden in plain sight.

When I lived in Seattle I always assumed I would one day visit the garden, but somehow the time flew. I wasted my opportunities.

Last week I finally got there.

Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.
Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.

This extraordinary garden began as the work of one man, Fujitaro Kubota, who immigrated to America in 1907. He worked on the railroad before establishing his own gardening company in Seattle in 1923. In 1927 he began planting the garden on five acres of swampland in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. By 1930 the core of the Japanese Garden was complete.

Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.
Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.

However, as anyone who gardens knows, a garden is not a static creation. Its life and health and beauty depend upon the persistent care and vision of the gardener. The Kubota Garden suffered an unusual setback during World War II, when, like tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent, the Kubota family was incarcerated at an internment camp in Idaho for four years.

When the Kubotas were allowed to return to Seattle, Mr. Kubota and his sons set to work to restore and expand the garden. The result of their labors is a stunning testimony to the power of gardening to foster peace and generate goodwill.

Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.
Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.

The calm voice of reason is too often lost in rabble-rousing and the vicious spin cycle of media rivals. It’s worth remembering that this great country of ours has been built in large part by the immigrants who arrived here from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most arrived with little but hope and ambition, and most endured resistance from the folks who got here “first.” Yet, with the exception of the original citizens of this nation, who were nearly wiped out by the early pioneers and now are compelled to fight for the most basic human rights, here in the United States of America we are all immigrants. We all wave the same little flags on the Fourth of July and during electoral seasons. But flags mean nothing if we forget what they stand for.

At The Kubota Garden, the meaning of good citizenship is embedded in rocks and roots. It flows freely in the waterfalls, stands tall in the evergreens. It tells us: work hard, grow strong, and remember where you came from.

Rake Season

In autumn sunlight gilds the birches at the edge of Green Lake in Seattle.

Far from the maddening mud fight of politics, the world of gardening spins steadily along. Days shorten, temperatures drop, and leaves skitter across the lawn.

Gardeners are immune to the vagaries of political power struggles. Regimes and movements come and go. Conditions get better or worse, fortunes rise and fall almost as predictably as the tides.

Meanwhile, in the quiet backwaters of real life, gardeners carry on. We rake and clip and mulch and dream of other summers, other springs. It’s not all roses.

Murderous storms, withering heat, deadly cold and relentless bugs provide a gritty ballast to keep even the giddiest gardener from harboring illusions of success. But there are moments.

For people caught up in the madness of horticulture, the troubles of the fractious grasping world recede to a background static. We sympathize with the passion and the agony of those trying to make the world a better place. But the world is such a big place. Perhaps if everyone made a start in their own backyard?

For me, the madness of gardening began as a child. I planted radishes and Indian corn, not from any desire to eat either of them, but because it was an adventure to plant a seed and watch what happened. My gardens in the last several decades have seldom lived up to my dreams, but my dreams still sustain me when reality fails and negativity don’t pull me through (thanks be to Bob).

Yet even the most enthusiastic gardener occasionally yearns for a little encouragement from a kindred spirit. I have been blessed with some wonderful gardening friends, but the constraints of time and distance limit our time together. However a good book can work wonders. I recently discovered “Garden People: The Photographs of Valerie Finnis,” by Ursula Buchan. Published in 2007, this remarkable collection documents the colorful and personal gardening styles of legendary British gardeners by one of the greatest of them, Finnis herself.

Her unmatched passion for horticulture and for sharing and encouraging others is an inspiration.
As this gardening season shuts down and another dark winter looms with forecasters predicting all sorts of weather-related mayhem, I plan to hunker down in the company of “Garden People” and dream of other springs.

At the National Cathedral the Bishop's Garden offers a glimpse of classic British garden style.
At the National Cathedral the Bishop’s Garden offers a glimpse of classic British garden style.


Apocalypse Wow

The Potomac has been frozen solid for weeks this winter.
The Potomac has been frozen solid for weeks this winter.

We’re starting to get the hang of it.

That first “polar vortex” caught us napping, dreaming our playful global warming scenarios, the ones in which we don’t run out of fresh water but we do get to have a beach ten minutes from downtown D.C.. You know, the kinder gentler apocalypse where somehow we pull a last minute yoo-ee and don’t wreck the planet.

But this latest “parade of clippers” paired with a brisk course of Arctic palette cleansers gave us all a chance to embrace our inner Yetis.

People in other parts of the nation, not including those rarified climates of California, Florida or Seattle, regularly have to put up with the sort of winter smackdown that we’ve been enjoying for the past month, so I don’t expect the residents of, say, Michigan, have much sympathy with whining.

There will be no whining here. Instead, I strapped on my camera and set forth to capture the wonderfulness of the frigid landscape. Unfortunately, I’m not the intrepid shutterbug I once was, and failed to come up with anything remotely dramatic.

Bright berries light up the snowy Georgetown Waterfront Park.
Bright berries light up the snowy Georgetown Waterfront Park.

However, luckily, here in D.C. there is no shortage of crazy weather nuts who make the effort and share with us all the most breathtaking sunrise and sunset and storm photos. Several of these guys also write for the Washington Post’s Weather Gang column, and they post their stunning pix there. Check these out!

I may never learn to love the cold, but I’m a sucker for beautiful sunrises and sunsets. And this bone chilling weather seems to lend an extra dimension of dazzle to the scenery.

I appreciate the quiet beauty of the season of ice and fire. And as a gardener, I’ve also learned to respect the value of a reliable blanket of snow. Nothing hurts plants more than an unseasonal warm spell followed by the sudden return of normal cold. Robert Frost, who composed many poems about the seasons, described this particular peril most eloquently in a few lines of “Good-bye and Keep Cold.”

No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
‘How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.’

We don’t have a lot of orchards here in the city, of course. But the principle is solid. Each year the people who bank on the Cherry Blossom Festival endure months of anxiety over whether or not a late frost or a turbo-charged spring will sabotage the blooms.

So maybe we’d best keep those earmuffs handy. And people who don’t like it can just chill.

Dig In

Chris Parsons' magical art glistens in the early morning dew.

My current fave nightstand book is a small square chunk titled “The Garden Book,” which might seem unimaginative as titles go, but trust me, like the library in Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University, it’s much bigger on the inside.

The book (published by Phaidon) offers an illustrated survey of 500 of the world’s most influential gardeners. There are 500 photos, each accompanied by a tantalizingly brief paragraph about the designer or the garden.

Those who have never attempted to make a garden from scratch might be bored already, but for those of us with calloused hands and dirt under our fingernails, this book offers a stunning, inspiring, and humbling glimpse at the breathtaking scope of gardening ambitions.

Some of the gardens included are famous, others not so much. Some are modern, severe and tightly controlled. Some are wildly romantic, lush and drunk with blooms. There are examples of amazing artistry, such as Chris Parsons’ dew garden, a work of ephemeral beauty created by brushing a design on a dew-soaked lawn. Other effects take years to achieve, such as the cloud hedge at Schoten Garden in Belgium.

The cloud hedge in Schoten Garden, Belgium.

Anyone who has waited years to see a particular plant reach its peak will marvel at the patience and vision of some of these gardens. Of course, not all of us have the resources to produce anything on the spectacular scale of La Reggia di Caserta, with its nearly two-mile-long canal and water-staircases in Naples. But then, that garden was built to impress kings. We who simply aspire to produce a pleasant spot for an al fresco lunch may be content with more modest achievements.

I’ve been gardening so long, I sometimes wonder why I can’t seem to do a better job of it. Yet no matter how boldly I start out in January, planning and plotting, by September the decline is unmistakable. Some years it’s drought. Other years bugs, or blights, or heat, or cold, or  fill in the blank with the personal melt-down of your choice. And, of course, the clock is ticking the whole time. You can tell yourself there will be another spring, another summer, but, you know, immortality isn’t as easy as it looks on the big screen.

Yet, in this respect, my little garden book offers a kind of sustaining perspective. Among the many gardens depicted are some whose best days were many centuries ago. Not much is left of Apadanus Palace, the once-magnificent garden showcase of Darius the Great in Persepolis. Around about 1450 B.C. Darius’s terraces and reflecting pools were the talk of Persia, yet now only the stone stairs and a few pillars remain as evidence of his personal paradise.

The fleeting nature of, well, Nature, is both its charm and its ineffable mystery. And now it’s September. The days grow shorter. The angle of the sun casts long shadows across the garden, gilding the bright leaves, the russet grasses. There’s a different kind of energy in the air as autumn begins its mellow drawing in. Somehow, even though the garden is winding down, I feel excited already about the next season.

It’s like baseball, only better. In gardening, everyone wins.

Borrowed Scenery

A willow curtain provides sylvan solitude.

Willows don’t get much attention in late summer. They usually get a brief spotlight entrance in early spring, when they race into leaf before most other trees have gotten out of bed.

But for me the charm of the willow doesn’t let up, even after all the headliners of spring—the flowering cherries and plums and dogwoods—steal the show. Long after those prima donnas have vanished behind their rather ho-hum summer foliage, the willows retain their unmatched grace and style. Whether swaying in the lightest breeze or backlit by the sun, willows can light up a landscape.

As an urban gardener I appreciate the subtle power of “borrowed scenery,” the Japanese landscape concept in which small gardens are designed to take advantage of the beauty surrounding them. In the country this can mean framing a mountain view, or an open vista to a pastoral scene. In the city, where plots are small and houses close together, such grand scenery is less likely to be available, although some cities, Seattle for instance, enjoy an abundance of mountain and water views.

Still, the idea behind the borrowed scenery strategy is that the beauty of a given yard depends not only on the work you put in yourself but the choices that your neighbors make. I’m grateful to the gardeners on my block, whose thoughtful tree and shrub selections provide an endlessly variable and interesting backdrop for my own small garden.

Cooperation and consideration are the rootstock of good neighbors. I take my hat off to the gardeners who plant nice things by the sidewalk, who replace boring lawns with vibrant combinations of colorful foliage and blooms, who cherish the amazing trees in their yards.

And a special tip of the trowel to the visionary neighbors who planted a wonderful willow tree in their backyard years ago. That green curtain lights up my world.

At Monet's Giverny the willows entrance visitors almost as much as the famous water lilies.

Ripeness is All

Celebrities and Big Boys flourish in hot summer nights.

Okay, it’s mid-August. If you haven’t got any ripe tomatoes by now either you’re not trying or you live in Seattle.

I used to dream of ripe tomatoes when I lived there. Yet it was nigh on to impossible to coax the plants to fruition, not for lack of sunshine, which is abundant to the point of ridiculous in August. But the night temperatures drop so low that tomatoes sulk and seldom achieve the sort of shiny overflowing pulchritude that comes so easily in the Mid-Atlantic region.

This summer marks the first time in seven years that I’ve not only grown my own, but had enough to give away. However, I’ll say this for Seattle: they know how to make the most of the tomatoes they get.

In the past decade of so, with the spread of social networks and the ubiquity of the devices in which they fester, there’s been a rapid proliferation of events engineered to bring together carefree young people, and those grown-ups who refuse to abandon all silliness even after they land a real job. Flash mobs were one of the first successful examples of this sort of phenomenon. Large groups of people would gather, as if spontaneously, to sing and dance, “Glee”-style, in public places. As the popularity of this sort of thing grew, it was perhaps inevitable that professional organizers would come up with a profit angle.

But what does this have to do with tomatoes, you ask? Put on your goggles and swimsuit and I’ll tell you.

It appears that we live in the golden age of the Tomato Battle. Young folks these days, not content to make lemonade out of the lemons which life hands them, have found a way to make merry with leftover tomatoes. In cities all across America and abroad, savvy marketers have put together those two staples of outdoor summer fun, the beer garden and the tomato garden, to make an unholy mess. Coming soon to a city near you.

Actually, the most recent Tomato Battle in D.C. took place indoors, and, judging by the photos, was a kind of sedate affair compared to a full-fledged tomato battle royal. The Tomato Battle organizers understand that you can’t run a good battle without ammo. They anticipate going through 100,000 pounds of tomatoes in the upcoming Seattle Tomato Battle, scheduled for this coming Saturday, August 17th, at the Pyramid Alehouse. They also understand that the key to success in any tomato fight is timing. Thus the beer garden opens three hours before the first tomato flies.

The organizers have thought of everything. They assure participants, and all those who object on principle to the idea of playing with food, that all the tomatoes used in the battle were already damaged (aka “rotten”) and thus could not have been used to feed the hungry. This disclaimer fits with Seattle’s firmly held convictions about keeping priorities straight: save the environment, help the helpless, then party like there’s no tomorrow.

And, since Seattle is not known as a tomato town, there’s also a note in the fine print to acknowledge the contingency: “In the event of a tomato shortage we will hold a giant mud battle. The event will go on as planned but with mud instead of tomatoes.” Good to know.

Calling All Vegetables

Viva vegetables!

They’re back!

Fresh vegetables, grown in fields not far from here, are beginning to surface in local farmer’s markets. Yay!

I mean, I’m all in favor of kale and rutabagas, in theory. But in practice, my go-to vegetables tend to be zucchinis, green beans and peppers in every shape and color. I’m also a big fan of Brussels sprouts and broccoli and mushrooms. However, not everyone for whom I cook shares my enthusiasm for these second tier veggies. So in the interests of familial harmony I tend to stick to familiar vegetables.

Yet even if I can’t always buy them, I love to see the cornucopia of produce each spring. Although we’re months away from backyard tomatoes and squash, the soil is warming, the rains are encouraging, and the general prospects for a great summer are in place.

Sure, there will probably be a killer drought in August. And the 17-year locusts are expected sometime this spring. But gardeners learn to roll with the punches. Strong storms and damaging winds may flatten our crops but they’ll never dash our hopes that we’ll be eating homegrown tomatoes before the Fourth of July.

Right now the roses have yet to see their first Japanese beetle of the year. I’m trying to enjoy the moment. Garden pests are just part of the Big Picture, like bad calls in baseball or delays on the metro.

So what if the Nats can’t seem to sustain a winning streak? The gnats in my backyard have their beady little eyes on the pennant.

I’m hoping that when the cicadas emerge they’ll drive the gnats crazy. And who knows? Maybe they’ll also spur the Nats on to glory.

A Coy Uncertain Season

Spring hides in the gleam of a robin's eye.

Spring makes no promises. We make them for her.

We who cling to romantic ideas believe the sun-kissed air will heal all wounds and renew all hopes.

Spring! The very word suggests a leaping up, a gamboling frolic, a free pass to let go of grim propriety and wear flowers in our hair, if we still have hair.

Yet Spring is nothing if not capricious. The first official day of the sweet season is March 21st, but that means little to Spring, who comes when she will and often leaves before we’ve grown weary of her charms.

Last year, as some may recall, Spring burst upon the D.C. area with such a flourish in late winter that by the time the National Cherry Blossom Festival began the trees had already been there, done that in early March.

This year, Spring seems to be feeling more flirtatious. A few balmy hours here, a few melting sun breaks there, then back to the cool gray noirish mood, with a brisk wind-chill chaser.

Fine. I can wait. Anticipation is so often the best part of anything. I’ve got a lot of projects in the works to keep me from watching the clock or the thermometer: a couple of ebooks on the way, including a new, restored version of my first fantasy novel, Alice and the Green Man, which includes material left out of the first edition. Also the first volume of The Greening trilogy is nearing completion.

And, here in the real world, I’ve broken ground on a new garden—perhaps the most satisfying way to enjoy the blooming celebration that is Spring’s calling card.

Spring flirts with flowers in the air.

So, go ahead, blow you old Winter winds for a few more weeks if you must. Go ahead, shake some more feeble snow on the sidewalk. I don’t believe in you anymore.

There’s a new sheriff coming to town. Her name is Spring.