Why Foxglove Corner?

20150730_125643Once upon a time – about five years ago – my garden had a foxglove year.

Has your garden ever decided that this year one particular species of flower will do exceedingly well? Not kinda well or very well but sensationally well. It’s like you hit the jackpot of that particular species that year.

Five years ago for me it was foxgloves. For no reason I can fathom foxgloves grew and flourished all over my garden. I had foxgloves in every corner, foxgloves across the back, foxgloves standing sentry at every corner of the house. I was overwhelmed with foxgloves.

I wanted them to last forever. They were so glorious, such an improvident splurge of pink. Bees loved them and it  was then I realized that bees have to completely disappear inside the flower to reach the pollen. I’d see a bee then it would be gone, only to reappear a few moments later to continue its task.

There were so many bees appearing and disappearing that I thought I might set up as a sort of bee traffic cop. “You, the bee that just arrived, over to the left, and start at the bottom, then work upwards.”

“You, start on the tall foxglove over there, but watch out for the big bee half way up – you can’t see him right now but he’s been working the stem for the last ten minutes.”

Somehow they managed their own system without my assistance. There was no bee quarreling and the plants stood still and tall, allowing their pollen to be harvested.

I thought with all this pollination there would be even more foxgloves the following year, but no. A few grew, but no glorious excess. However, I had already named my garden “Foxglove Corners”. The year of the foxglove is permanently etched in my memory.

With time, of course, even that splendiferous display faded. The flowers died. I pulled the plants up and consigned them to the compost. I wished that glory could have lasted forever.

But glory that lasts for ever is no longer glory – it becomes standard issue. You see a beautiful rose and it leaves you breathless with its perfection. So you go to a display of the local rose society and you see hundreds of perfect roses. Rose perfection becomes standard issue. You go home and realize that your own roses are nice but a long way short of perfection. The magic has vanished.

I believe that nature occasionally gives us a glimpse of her magic. When I was a child my grandfather would once in a while open up his big old-fashioned watch and show me the workings ticking away. It was like magic to me, so much happening in such a tiny space.

Once in a while nature allows us a peek at her magic. If you spend time in your garden you increase the odds of seeing the magic – you’re around it more and you become sensitized to it.

Sometimes it’s big, flamboyant magic, like a garden full of pink foxgloves. Sometimes it’s tiny magic, like a hummingbird bathing. It’s not woo-woo magic. It’s magic like someone lifted a corner of an invisible curtain and you alone were able to see what lies behind it.

I was privileged to have my foxgloves for a whole summer. ‘Foxglove Corner’ keeps the magic alive for me.

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Growth

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Growth takes time. Be patient. And while you’re waiting, pull a weed.    Emilie Barnes

It occurred to me today that our relationship with our garden is a little unequal.

I go out into the garden and I’m thinking “That buddleja is getting a bit straggly – I’d better cut it back. That hosta isn’t doing well. I’d better move it to somewhere that will give it more shade.”

My thoughts are about noticing what isn’t quite perfect and how I can improve it.

The garden never looks back at me and says, “You hair looks a bit straggly this morning. Why don’t you get it cut?”

Of course not. It sits there peacefully and lets me be me and you be you – just the way I am and the way you are.

It may be one reason we love our gardens – they don’t point out our imperfections and they don’t try to improve us. Yet at the same time they contribute to our wellness and they leave us a little closer to being our best self.

They encourage us to be patient – each flower blooms in its own season. You can’t pay for it to bloom earlier and you can’t use your advanced degree in engineering to build a stem that grows faster. You develop patience.

They show us how to accept what we can’t change, If that bush has fewer, smaller flowers than it had last year there is nothing much you can do but wait till next year. A tantrum will not improve the flowers, nor will threats or bribery. You can weep or swear or stamp your feet. It will make no difference.

Perhaps this is the reason we feel calmed and made to feel more peaceful by our garden. It has its own inevitability. We can go out there with problems or worries and it does not demand that we follow one solution or change our thinking. It does not even point out that we brought it on ourselves or that it’s all the fault of the government.

It goes steadily about its business of growing, leaving the complaints and rationalizations to us. We come away with some of that steadiness. For every ounce of  outer energy we put into our garden it gives us back a greater helping of inner strength.

It is, perhaps, a little unequal. But then, the garden has the power of nature behind it.

Thank you!

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When my children were little we would take them to a local restaurant for a treat now and then. The treat was always a burger and fries but the best part was the server. If we arrived early, before the main lunch crowd, we could sit in her section.

This server was a middle aged lady and her name was “the thank you lady”. She may have had another name but in our family, going for a burger was known as ‘going to see the thank you lady’.

She was called ‘the thank you lady’ first because I wanted the kids to have good manners. But also because the meal served to our kids had extra fries and their dessert had an extra scoop of ice cream.

In the beginning they did not realize the extras they were getting, but with time they began to revel in this sense of specialness. Forty years later their eyes still light up when they say “Do you remember the thank you lady?”

Some people have a reserved space in your memory for as long as you have a memory. In my own memory it is our neighbour Mr Batty, who occasionally allowed me to pick a few flowers in the greenhouse that was his pride and joy.

Today I don’t remember what variety of flowers they were, I just remember that they were not like plain, ordinary flowers. This was not a daisy or a daffodil or even an iris, which was as special as our own garden got. This was a flower of delight. I would put it in a jar (my mother didn’t trust me with a vase) and set it on my bedroom window sill.

Looking back, I should have shared it, but no. It was like we had an exclusive  relationship, the flower and I. I could fall asleep looking at it and next morning it would still be right there on the window sill.

My aunt too has a special place in my memory. I went to stay with her when I was in my teens and found a small vase of sweet peas beside my bed. I felt like visiting royalty. Not only were they in a vase, but no-one had put flowers beside my bed before. To this day, if I have visitors staying overnight I put a vase of flowers beside their bed. I hope it makes them feel just as special as I did then.

Nowadays when I visit a nursery garden that is new to me, I almost always find flowers that wow me. It used to be that I would try to find a way to buy them no matter how unsuitable they were for my own garden. It was that childish ‘I see it, I want it, it must be mine’ reaction. Now I can – usually – resist.

I can admire it, I can say “thank you” for having seen it, but I don’t have to own it. (Well, maybe once in a while, but not often.) It gives me peace to say ‘thank you’ for flowers. My camellias or begonias, what perfection! Thank you.

My neighbour’s rhodos, the silk tree around the corner, the display our parks people arrange in the roundabout. My eyes, my brain absorb the beauty.

Thank you.

Love the Green

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If you’re reading a garden blog you are at least dreaming of having a beautiful garden.

No matter that you have only time to mow the grass. No matter that the grass is brown in the heat of summer and covered with snow in winter. No matter that your garden is a couple of pots on the balcony. Somewhere in your imaginings there is a beautiful garden that you have made.

It might be, perhaps, full of roses, or of lavender. It might have shady arbours or a pond surrounded with lush greenery. Or it could have a row of those tall blue flowers whose name you can’t quite remember.

Then reality kicks in. Roses? In this climate?! Are you kidding me?

A pond? I can’t even afford to buy my own apartment!

But if you are reading a gardening blog you have in your mind some tiny piece of plant beauty that is yours already or is within your reach. Is there even  single flower you could pick or buy? Dandelions even, or whatever the common weed is in your part of the world.

Find yourself a flower and let your soul feel the intensity of its colour. Look at the green of its stem and its leaves. Think of its bud and its seeds. Like you, it has a life to live and you are sharing that life.

If you have a garden, or even a few pots, pick one flower and look at it carefully. Name its colour and the shape of its petal – the purple, heart-shaped petal of a pansy, the dusty orange pollen inside a crocus. Can you smell its fragrance? If you touch a petal with your little finger how does it feel? how smooth is its stem?

Try to name the flower and find out more about it on Wikipedia. Have you ever wondered why one kind of leaf is stiff and leathery while another is soft and covered with fine hairs? It’s for protection against the weather or hungry animals – that’s the easy answer. But take time to feel the texture and to think on it.

When you take time to think on the plant or flower you are looking at you are wondering. You have brought your wonder to what you are seeing and feeling. It’s a gift that will open the world to you.

When your eyes skip over the whole garden without seeing anything fully you are missing that wonder. You are allowing that depth of wondering to slide past without being noticed. Maybe right now you don’t have the time.

But there is no richer way to spend time.

The Serendipity Flower

rose-404364_1280It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. – Thoreau

It happened again this morning!

Has it ever happened to you? You go outside, having carefully looked over your garden the evening before, and suddenly there is this new flower. In my case, it was a rose.

I would swear on a bumblebee’s bottom that there wasn’t so much as a bud on that rose bush last night. Today, a whole new flower smiling at me.

I didn’t see it developing. I didn’t spot the bud when it was new and tiny and then watch it, as I usually do, fattening up, showing colour then – pow! – blooming.

This perfectly beautiful orange rose bloomed all on its own without my permission or my assistance. I don’t know whether to be thrilled or annoyed. After all, I’m in charge of this garden, aren’t I?

It’s me who plants, waters, fertilizes, weeds. So I’m in control here, am I not?

I’d like to think so, but in truth I know I am not. No gardener, not even the most anal, is in control of their garden. You can plant flowers in straight rows, instantly root out every weed, prune to exact specifications. Still, the heat of summer, cold of winter, lack of rain will confound you, along with their allies in your defeat – moles, mildew and the neighbourhood cats.

Yes, you can mitigate and you can encourage, but you cannot control.

Think of all the invisible micro-creatures in your soil. Millions, maybe billions in your patch alone. Are you going to harness them? Are you going to direct their path in your garden? Can you even point the spider to where he should weave his web?

Yes, you could wreck the spider’s web if it is inconveniently placed. You could even kill the spider (although please don’t – I’m just being rhetorical here). And you’d have the situation under control – until the next spider came along and saw the possibilities of that prime location.

Your garden with all its flora and fauna might look better with your guiding hand. Maybe people stop and admire it, maybe it simply gives you deep satisfaction. Yet we gardeners will do well to remember that we are working with nature. This is a partnership, not a relationship where the gardener is boss and nature had better shape up.

Because nature will frequently give us more and better than we deserve. She will give us serendipity plants whose seed blew in from who-knows-where. She will give us a beautiful orange rose that we never saw coming.

If we give up our illusion of control she will reward us with serendipity.

Book review – ‘Mr Owita’s Guide to Gardening’

Spoiler alert! This is not a guide to gardening; it does not tell you how to plant cabbages or avoid mildew.

It is more a guide to life; more specifically a guide to how to survive when life seems at its worst. It is the story of two people facing some of life’s nastiest issues and curviest balls.

I highly recommend it if you are going through any kind of bad patch. Better still, give it as a gift to someone else if they need emotional reinforcement.

The book opens as the writer, Carol Hall, looks at her yard and realizes it is a mess. It needs someone to bring it to respectability. Her neighbour’s garden looks quite attractive, so Carol will ask the name of the gardener.

Cue Mr Owita.

This is a man full of surprises. His quiet influence causes the writer to pack away all her normal expectations and learn to approach life in a new way. Doing this, she openly reveals her weaknesses in a way most of us would rather not do.

This is a book not only written by a competent writer but which treads the line of revealing powerful relationships without descending into sentimentality. It’s a book about feelings and perceptions revealed in a practical, common-sensical way.

If this sounds like something you would enjoy then I urge you to get hold of ‘Mr Owita’s Guide to Gardening’. It helps to see how others have faced everyday, big time adversity.

Forget Me not

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“We do not see nature with our eyes but with our understandings and our hearts.”

William Hazlett

The tiny flower we call forget-me-not has the Latin name myosotis. This comes from the Greek word meaning ‘mouse ears’. Apparently the Greeks looked at the tiny round petals and thought they looked like the ears of a mouse.

Myself, I don’t see it. Yes, both are tiny and rounded but a lot of other flowers have tiny round petals too, so why choose the forget-me-not for this name?

I understand its common name – forget-me-not – rather better. It comes from medieval times and other European languages have a name for it that translates the same. In those times blue was considered to be the colour of fidelity so a knight heading off on a crusade would give his lady something blue to remember him by.

It was often worn by ladies as a sign of faithfulness and lasting love. Hence the wedding mantra ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’.

In a German legend, God was naming all the plants when a tiny one not yet named called, “Forget-me-not, O Lord!” And God smiled and said, “That shall be your name.”

Thoreau wrote, “The mouse-ear forget-me-not, Myosotis laxa, … hangs over the edge of the brook.” It reminds  us that the forget-me-not likes a damp corner.

It isn’t a showy flower but it can make an effective background against which to display brilliant tulips in springtime.

But back to mouse ears. It reminds us of the power of individual perception. So much is in the eye of the beholder. One person looks at a tiny blue flower and thinks of remembrance and faithfulness. Another sees mouse ears. Is one right and one wrong? Or do we give thanks for our different understandings?

Can we combine the two, as Thoreau did?

Some gardeners see a pretty flower and welcome the forget-me-not every spring time. Others say it spreads so fast it is practically a weed and they root it out. Is one side right and the other side wrong? Or is it simply another perception?