Worries and Autumn Leaves



Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

John Muir

And yes, those autumn leaves do drop off and remind us that the annual cycle of life has reached its resting time. Those leaves that were so soft and new in spring time lie underfoot, either brittle or mushy.

It’s nature’s way that they will contribute to the richness of the soil next year. It would be nice if our cares would drop off and become brittle and mushy, gradually decomposing to enrich us next year.

John Muir put cares into their true perspective – small, unimportant things that en masse can perhaps become overwhelming. John Muir it was who tramped all over the western side of the North American continent and determined that the United States HAD to preserve its most beautiful areas in parks – so originating the National Parks system.

He it was who preserved the redwoods of California. Few people have memorials as great and grand as his. And I think he must have been a truly happy man. He usually explored and tramped the hills and valleys alone, but never lonely.

His connection with nature, with plants and the rocks and streams was so strong and so laden with meaning about the richness of life that he felt dimensions the rest of us seldom feel.

He felt the living-ness of plants and the intimate connections of rocks and water. But he must have had worries too. He had a wife, a home and two daughters. All of which are delightful but create their share of cares.

We are told that, good or bad, “this too shall pass”.  I imagine him struggling to prove the glaciation of the valleys as he looked at the landforms but with a niggling worry about his daughter’s latest impossible boyfriend.

Could he put it in perspective, with his little worries like the leaves falling from the trees? Did he look at the mountains and the valleys, wondering how they looked before the ice age? How they had changed since? What changes the hand of man might wreak on them?

And did those wonderings overwhelm his little worries?  Even the landscape changes over time although it is generally a slow process. Humans come and go in a landscape according to a faster time scale.

Cares and worries change even more rapidly, ephemeral like the leaves on trees. These too will pass.



Golden Leaves


I’m looking out over an ocean of golden leaves that covers and hides my garden. They are glorious, like gold coins, and I am the millionaire who owns them.

Soon enough they will turn brown but I don’t care. Today I am the golden leaf millionaire.

I should consider raking them up, but not today. Today I am the golden leaf millionaire.

For days the leaves have hung on the tree, gold coins against a vivid blue sky, but now they are falling, showering the path, the plants, the soil with gold.

Toddlers and dogs bounce in the piles, laughing, barking with joy. The spiders have cursed the weight of the leaves as they weigh down their webs. The earwigs have blessed the leaves as they have scuttled to hide underneath them.

Nature excels in profligacy – she has so many leaves on so many trees, each autumn for so many years. A few sample leaves would have done. We could have put them under glass in a museum. We would then have valued them highly and a few men might have made plans to steal them and sell them to a collector for a fortune.

But no, we have so many golden leaves that we complain about them and rake them up. Their only value is as compost. But my golden leaves have value as I stare out the window at them.

The sun is making them lustrous, glowing. Their brightness is almost overwhelming. I bask in their richness.

At some point they will turn brown and crisp. Like all wealth they turn to dross in the face of the ultimate realities. I will no longer be a golden leaf millionaire, I will be a gardener facing an annual task.

The worms will pull some leaves down into the soil and the micro-organisms will go about their dutiful work preparing the soil to get ready for the work of enriching the tree to create next year’s harvest.

More golden leaves then. Again for a few days I will be the golden leaf millionaire.


Attila the Lily


Today I have been weeding in the garden. Again.

Well, not so much weeding as tidying away plants that have either died messily or invaded territory that did not belong to them.

So now I am sitting back, aching, listening to a squirrel scold me. My garden looks less rampant and unruly, which was my intention. It is also somehow poorer and less happily exuberant.

I have removed many, many lilies of the valley. When I was a child we had a tiny patch of lilies of the valley hiding under a small lilac. The patch never grew larger in several years but it always produced three stems of dainty flowers that I thought were magical.

So in my own garden I planted one or two lilies of the valley, hoping for perhaps a small clump, given time, and for a few of the delicate flowers with their perfume that smells of spring. They turned into Attila the Hun, attacking and colonizing almost the whole back garden. So much for dainty.

So today I attacked Attila the lily Hun. I had lots of energy because I was angry. People I care about had been ill-treated. Why does it hurt so much more when our friends are harmed than when we ourselves are harmed?

As I ripped out plant after plant, many with long underground runners attached, I was really uprooting the woman who had just hurt my friends. I know I am supposed to wish all sentient beings well, but today, how about all sentient beings minus one? Isn’t that close enough?

She is a weed in the garden of life, I huffed, yanking away. She is a dandelion in a rose bed. Except that I rather like dandelions.

My weeding out of thug plants masquerading as delicate lilies of the valley progressed rapidly. My mood and my task matched perfectly. Every plant that faced its demise in the compost pile had the face of that cruelly insensitive woman.

My desire to phone and give her a really big piece of my mind gradually faded. I can’t say that I softened completely but I became more willing to think words such a “youth and inexperience” rather than expletives.

Soon enough my body began to give signs that I had done enough weed pulling for one day. My mind was not ready to quit, though. It had more work to do. So I toiled on, rather more slowly.

My head, however, kept working at the same whirling speed until I could think words like “Out of her depth” and “Might need more support”.

I’d like to say I tipped my anger into the compost along with my lily of the valley thugs, but no. It was still there. I was still seething, but less intensely. The heat of anger had cooled a little, the turmoil had quietened. I would be able to sleep on my righteous indignation, not fire off angry phone calls and emails.

By tomorrow who knows what logic, wisdom, charitable thoughts will have surfaced and taken root in my mind. My garden has always absorbed my worst thoughts, removed some of the poison from them and left my thinking somewhere closer to my still, small centre – a little closer to where it ought to be.

My unruly, messy thinking is tamed a little. The anger that invaded has been reduced to a more manageable enemy. It no longer fills my mind like thug plants fill the garden. I’m ready to open myself to hear the scolding of the squirrel, the perfume of the alyssum, the touch of a light breeze.

My garden has started to set me to rights again. My world is moving back towards its equilibrium.

Who said women could be gardeners?


The only way to learn is to DO the actual work.                                     Beatrix Havergal, 1939

Imagine a little girl growing up in a strict Victorian vicarage. Beatrix lived for her own little garden but every couple of years her father was posted to a different vicarage in a different town and she was torn away from her beloved little garden.

As she grew older, of course, this became no surprise. She learned not to invest quite so much of herself in her garden, but leaving it still hurt. It was so important to her.

Older again, she needed either a husband or some way of making a living. She had  no patience with men – she couldn’t be bothered with their endless posturing – and anyway she was stronger than most of them. The alternative was earning her own living and becoming a governess was really the only choice for a well-brought up young lady.  Except that Beatrix wanted to be a gardener.

Women did not garden for a living. True, many women through the ages had tended gardens either for vegetables to feed the family or as a hobby. But for a living? No. Definitely not. It was man’s work.

It was Beatrix Havergal who changed all that. True she started out with the small step of teaching at a girl’s private school rather than being a governess. Rather eccentrically she asked if she could have a small garden at the school and she was allowed that. Her enthusiasm spread to the girls and a class in gardening was started, with Beatrix as the teacher. In addition she became gardener for the school.

This last was a big step and it led to an even bigger one. She left the girl’s school and opened her own school for young lady gardeners. This became so successful that in 1932 she founded the Waterperry School of Horticulture, a residential horticultural college for women.

It had a character all its own. It was located in a beautiful Queen Anne mansion, an architectural jewel that was far beyond anything her students had ever expected to be their home, even temporarily. Lectures, one student said, took place in “our beautiful common room, with a vast expanse of sherry coloured carpet below and exquisite crystal chandeliers above, and usually there was a log fire burning in a marble fireplace. The whole mantelpiece was supported by long-suffering Grecian maidens.”

But all was not glamour. The girls had to start work at 6:40 am. At 7:50 am they assembled in chapel for a service. Supper was at 7:30 pm. Between times Miss Havergal expected hard work. Machinery was virtually non-existent although two carthorses helped with some of the heavier tasks.

In their two years at Waterperry students learned how to do all aspects of gardening, from designing the layout through to the heavy digging and planting. Girls who may have come from families where they were allowed to arrange flowers but not expected to put in any effort to actually grow them found that her motto was “The only way to learn is to DO the actual work.”

As the students worked Miss Havergal crusaded to have women gardeners accepted as head gardeners on estates large and small as well as in municipalities. She saw no point in teaching them if there were no jobs that matched their capabilities.

Nowadays we call them horticulturists, but women are accepted in the role by most people. By creating professionals, Miss Havergal (known to her friends as Trix) created that acceptance for women almost single-handedly.

Beatrix Havergal’s work was rewarded when the Queen awarded her the MBE.  Beatrix died in 1980.


dandelion-737967_1280A really long day of  weeding is a restful experience….I have attained the most profound inward peace, and the blessed belief of having uprooted all my enemies.

Anna Lea Merritt, 1908

I enjoy weeding. I had never thought about weeds as my enemies, merely that they obscured the beauty I was trying to create and sucked up nutrients that my ‘real’ plants could use.

But yes, if I think of them as enemies, pulling them out adds a whole extra level of pleasure to the task. Certainly they have a whole array of weapons to use against the weeder.

Nettles will outright sting you and leave you with a rash that will bother you for days. A formidable enemy. Thistles have thousands of prickles, so you’d better be wearing thick gloves. Their weapons are nasty – and very effective.

Some plants take a different approach – they have flowers so pretty that you leave them for a while, until they have finished flowering. It’s a trick – they hope you will go away and forget to pull them out before they set seeds. Once seeds are set and have scattered, their job is done.

Other weeds seem defenceless, but they still have their own unique character. Chickweed pulls out easily and because it can flourish over a wide swath of garden a  few quick pulls gives you a sense of accomplishment with very little effort. Except – it gives you a ‘plenty more where that came from’ grin as it sits in the weed bucket. Oh, yes, there will be more chickweed.

dandelion-16656_1280Then there are dandelions. They look so pretty by the roadside, flourishing along boulevards or poking up in impossible places. But not in my flower beds, thank you. I dig down as deep as I can to try to get the whole of that long tap-root. I seldom get it all but I have a great feeling of triumph when I come up with a goodly length of it. But the dandelion in my hand smiles serenely, ‘I’ll be back. If I can poke up in a crack I can certainly re-grow in your lawn.’

Plantains are just plain impossible. Their roots, thin hairy things, fan out in all directions. I do the best I can to be rid of them, reminding myself that they are cousins of the banana and therefore not all bad.

And then we have the horsetail. Get all the root you can and it still is not enough. I’m told they can grow up through tarred pathways. I do know from experience that they return and return and return some more. Pull them out all you want – they lie there in their primitive form saying ‘My family was on this earth long before yours – and we’ll be here long after you are gone.’ And they make me feel small and insignificant. It doesn’t help to say, “Well, I won this particular battle anyway”.

Bindweed isn’t a problem for me, although I know it is for some people. It doesn’t show up till later in the summer and one good pull can remove a long length of stringy vine. ‘But I have pretty flowers’ the bindweed says. ‘I’m prettier than this bush I’m strangling.’ And I have to harden my heart because indeed it is prettier.

Vetch is much like bindweed – a fast-growing strangly weed. When I try to pull it out I find it has constructed its own maze of thready vine all through the host bush and it is a test of skill to follow it from leaves and purple flowers back down through its host’s branches to its root. I get a sense of accomplishment from pulling out the whole tangled vetch plant. I imagine the host bush giving a sigh of relief and standing slightly straighter.

Do I feel as though I killed some of my enemies? Not necessarily. I have been judge and jury on these weeds and exercised my authority. I am in charge of this garden and I say which plants stay and which must go. It might be interesting to debate with a plant and hear their side of it, but this is not a democracy. I’m the Big Boss.

Until all the weeds grow back again, and I start over.






The Cure for what Ails You

2002-08-31 21.36.43Perhaps the chiefest attraction of a garden is that occupation can always be found there. No idle people are happy, but with mind and fingers busy cares are soonest forgotten.   

Alicia Amherst, 1902


When I was little my mother and grandmother still believed in the old home-made remedies for most illnesses. So when I came down with some childhood complaint I would be presented with some revolting looking liquid to drink or inhale and right away I’d ask “What is it?”

For home-made remedies there was no simple answer. She would have put so much healthy stuff into the concoction that you couldn’t just say one name such as “It’s Aspirin” or “It’s Pepto Bismol”. She wouldn’t be able to list the many ingredients. My mother would simply say,

“It’s the cure for what ails you.”

It was usually a pretty good cure because I would do my best to recover before a second dose was due. I never knew what went into it, but it would be a complex mixture based on generations of experience.

I was reminded of it this afternoon when I went out into my garden feeling vaguely tired and unmotivated. I thought I might pick a couple of weeds. An hour later, with a pile of weeds and prunings dragged over to the compost, I felt much better. My garden, like the old medicine, was definitely “The cure for what ails you.”

How often do we go outside feeling hurt or vexed, or annoyed or puzzled, with our healthy feelings undermined and our composure rattled? A session among the plants calms us and allows us to find a measure of perspective.

It was like that today. I had wandered out thinking I’d just root out a couple of dandelions that were flourishing in the grass and even cheekily blooming. I thought that then I might sit for a spell, except that a couple of roses needed dead-heading and after that the hosta leaves were looking yellow so I….

You know how it goes. After an hour of weeding and pruning I conceded that perhaps I wasn’t totally unmotivated. And the physical labor had somehow vanquished the tiredness. I sat for a spell but I was writing – between watching the squirrels and the chickadees.

How is it that time spent in the garden or out in the woods ‘cures what ails you”? If you’re expending energy you should be tired. Yes, I had achy muscles, but I was refreshed.

None of the plants offer an answer to our conundrums, a way out of our problems or a brilliant solution to dealing with difficult personalities. Yet none of these ills are quite as pressing and impossible afterwards as they were an hour before.

I wonder if it because in a garden everything unfolds as it should, in its own time and in its own way. You can’t worry it into doing better, or pull a plant upwards to grow taller or strategize it into flowering more vividly. It calmly takes its own course – maybe doing better than you ever expected. Or not.

Perhaps it is that calm, even pace that relaxes our jangled nerves. Perhaps we need at times to be in a place where we can’t manipulate or finagle the result we desire.

We get results in the garden by calm, thoughtful work. We follow the structured, natural time-table. There is no point me planting daffodils in June, hoping they will bloom in November. I could hover over them applying fertilizer daily but it wouldn’t help my cause.

There is comfort in knowing that nature has greater rules and more established systems than we do. We can design our landscape, water and fertilize plants but we will have a glorious garden only if we follow the dictates of the natural world. As we work along with nature, following her lead, we develop not only healthy plants but a measure of ease for ourselves.

So as we work in our garden, or even sit quietly allowing its life force to wash over us, we are absorbing ‘the cure for what ails us’.


pot-622670_1280You’d think planting was easy. You simply dig a hole, put the seed or plant in it, fill the hole back up and perhaps give the new baby a drink of water.

Not so fast!

Have you considered the type of soil, the exposure to sun or shade, the drainage? Is your plant likely to be eaten by deer, rabbits, slugs?

Of course you’ve considered those things. They’re basic. But have you considered whether you are a masser or a dotter?

In other words, do you mass a lot of the same plants together or do you dot them around one at a time? If you buy a tray of pansies or lobelia or petunias do they go into a patch together or do you like them better when they are one here and one there? Do you prefer the Wow! effect of several all contributing to one glorious splash of colour? Or do you like each to stand alone and offer its beauty individually?

Maybe it depends on your eye. Does your eye prefer to see the cumulative effect of the whole garden or the specific shape and color of each single plant?

I read somewhere recently that if you are planting say, three plants of the same kind, you should plant them in a triangle, fairly close together rather than in a straight line. At the time I thought that was because straight lines can be boring in a garden and some form of triangle is more interesting. The eye somehow finds it more appealing.

But that isn’t the reason at all. Apparently each plant provides some deep help and support to its neighbors and this can be done more fully if all three plants are closer together rather than the two at the ends of the line being further separated.

My mind plays with this concept. Does the middle plant of a straight line get all the help and grow ahead of its companions? Or does help get sucked from it in two directions with only half the return. Perhaps you need to be a mathematician to understand it.

So the question becomes – are you planting for your own pleasure or for the happiness of the plant?

Happiness of the plant?? Well, how many times have you heard a gardener say, “I planted it here but it wasn’t happy so I moved it over there and now it blooms twice a year.”? So clearly the happiness (or not) of the plant is important.

You might as well consider the happiness of the plant because if you plant for your own pleasure you’ll find a world full of critics. If you like the gentle anarchy of the English cottage garden style you’ll find some people turn up their noses and call it  ‘a mess’. If you like everything in straight lines with red and white flowers alternating some people will call it regimental or robotic.

It all comes down to the planting. What, how and where?

The advice of most old gardeners – plant what you love, what delights you. Try to follow the advice on the label or in your gardening book as you dig your plant a generous hole so it can relax and spread its roots. Then give it a shot of, say, bone meal or something similarly nutritious and a drink of water. If that doesn’t work move the plant before it turns up its toes and actually dies.