Seed for thought

We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have.

I had a wonderful coffee last week with a “green” friend which ended happily with us touring her garden. This was perfect as isn’t it the best of all things to nurture and cultivate a space then to share it in some way, or two? Bliss.

But what stopped me in my explorations were these dark, purply round fruit hanging down from withering late-summer stems in large pot.  Were they mini-eggplants?  This of course caused me a moment of real irritation as my eggplants had teased me all summer by producing gorgeous flowers and then…nothing.  But that’s another story.

That feeling quickly dissipated as knowledge was enthusiastically shared over a growing bed – a most excellent habit of gardeners! My friend introduced me to a Blueberry Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum “blueberry”.  Wow!  And that maybe, just maybe, it actually punched higher by weight than actual blueberries in antioxidants. What!?  When, oh when, does the global garden stop amazing us? I left with a small orb of possibility in my pocket – a mini-tomato whose seeds are being dried and stored for next year’s garden. A grand experiment on my part which got me thinking about the littlest of things that we share from our own gardens – seeds and neighbourly connections.

I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders. Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seed 1860-61

My first seed encounter was in the backyards of Montreal North where I grew up.  A culturally rich WWII community – immigrants from Europe and us, Canadian anglophones and francophones – all living in duplexes and triplexes overlooking yards where neighbours chatted in accented excitement over long wooden fences.  My mom loved that back balcony as it gave her the ability to watch over not just the two of us, my brother and me, but those neighbourhood gardens that rose from warmer climes and traditions.  They stood apart from ours with it’s one Maple tree and sprawling play area, as those other places were lush with a hands-on take on how to provide food for families. And roses.

In those gardens, the seasons would be marked by seedlings that had been nurtured through the late winter months, whose bright shoots were tied to poles in regular rows culminating in time to a tasty burst of harvest. A great botanical gathering gave rise to the rolling sound of wine casks emerging from basements and the aroma of tomato sauce thickening on stovetops.  Sauce that had a bold tendency to dance a quick step up the stairs, over the balcony and into our kitchen. Recipes followed as the fence-talk continued.

Once the cooking frenzy was over there was another domestic science experiment going on and it too rolled out in basements.  My neighbour, an immigrant from Italy, knew I was a curious kid and took me down the stairs to that family’s basement one perfect day.  There, spread out on brown paper, were hundreds of tomato seeds that had been sorted to type, dried and would be stored for next summer’s promise. The garden brought a curious community together, built on the experience of the past and kept in high regard the potential of seed – a knowing that my neighbour finetuned by observing year-to-year.

Seed is amazing. At the most basic level, viable seed means we’re ensuring the continuation of the wide variety of plant species and of global food sources.  Everything is held within the seed – an embryonic plant mapped by DNA, supported with protein and starch. Think about it – everything needed for the processes of germination, vegetation and reproduction is tucked into these distinct, botanical packages.  Along with that, we’re also saving the memory of people and plants we have known intimately as we sowed, germinated and waxed poetic about the plants outside.

Seeds and the importance of ensuring that our shared agricultural and botanical history – and future – are saved, takes place through our own garden seed saving from each season to the next, but on larger scales as well. Massive projects save seeds from all over the world such as the Crop Trust Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago – also known as the  Doomsday vault – or through not-for-profits like Seeds of Diversity in Canada. Mind-boggling.

When you save a seed, you save so much more than just a memory from last year’s garden, you hold a unique, biological being – a proto-plant in your hand.  Here life begins and when the growth cycle continues to a logical conclusion, the future is ensured by seed.

In the Book of Seeds, Paul Smith says: “For people, mastering the storage and manipulation of dormant seeds paved the way for agriculture and continues to determine the fate of nations.” We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have. Sounds a lot like hope doesn’t it?

Simply Sempervivum

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Aristotle, 384–322 BC

Life is about the details – around us, above us and often, below us.  There’s something about a walk, say in a garden, where you just might question if it’s in the inherent physics of plants to make us stoop over a leaf or bloom and for an instant, get lost in the wonder of a growing thing.  We just may need to find wonder more and more these days – a fascination in the smallest of things or the value someone else puts on them. 

Case in point, I now have an obsession with Sempervivums.

Sempervivum!  Imagine a dirt encrusted guerilla gardener holding a trowel high overhead, balancing a few green gems in her other hand, and marching towards a drying landscape, a pot, or a boot. Ok, maybe too dramatic but this plant is a survivor – I like that.

There is such beauty in the structure of these botanic stars. Makes you think of geometric symmetries, Fibonacci sequencing, abstract art – plants often have a great way of distracting you from the everyday and I know we need that from time-to-time.

Naturally, there is a story. I grew up listening to my mum talking affectionately about “hens and chicks” and considered this a decidedly strange term, an oddity of another gardening generation. But when we found our home, there they were, succulent green stars tucked between stones – not quite twinkling but definitely in a northern universe of their own.  I was forever hooked. I now know that mum was enchanted by them too – obviously genetic.

Sempervivum means “always living”, so poetic isn’t it? The botanical name is the fundamental hint that these plants are survivors.  Also known as houseleeks, they’re succulents in that they hold water and will work well in sites that are drier than most and freely drain – hence the use in rockeries, among others. And if you really love them, you can even pot them up for indoor enjoyment.

One interesting history of the plant, and a possible source for the houseleek nomenclature, was a traditional use of tucking them between roof shingles to prevent lightning strikes, fires – apparently all things risky. Hmmm – have you read the news these daze? Might check to see if there is room on the roof for one or two or….?

Sempervivium insists that you slow your pace, that you bend down low and admire the myriad designs the rosettes make. There you can see how the chicks, or offsets, grow from the edges to form a mat or, when broken off, start a new planting on their own.

Offsets in the offing – and so the garden grows.

Like most plants, people seem either to love them or hate them. Did you guess I’m in the love camp?

There’s another perspective however. I know this as a former colleague once lamented about how her husband would pull them out of their garden and toss the small botanic packages over the fence . His goal? To remove their very offensive presence. Hmmm. Lucky neighbour methinks.

The flipside of this view was evident a few years back when we visited Enlgand. A friend and I, having not realized that Vita Sackville West’s garden was closed that day (note to self – check before  you wander), were redirected and headed to Great Dixter in Rye, East Sussex. Gobsmacked by the story of the place and the creative gardening influence of Christopher Lloyd, we wandered for hours – that magic pull of gardens and plants again! Eventually we stumbled on two young gardeners, maybe students, kneeling on a stone patio delicately placing what must have been hundreds of these garden stars as a planned design element of the garden.  It was magic, the interplay of soft colours making a living quilt in the slanted sunshine. And it didn’t end there, Sempervivums also popped up in crockery and between the roof tiles. 

Here, on a late summer day this year, I visited a local farm to buy a perfect bouquet from a gal who had adapted her retail activity when COVID limited the use of market stalls, to her floral enticements being offered up in a weathered barn. Around the edge of the building and along a path, there were the succulent beauties brimming out of an old boot, further down out of a shoe.  Magic again and oh-so-appropriate for hens and chicks.

Later this week, I’ll share a coffee with a local Lanark County Master Gardener who is known for her specialisation in succulents.  Friendships can form over green pursuits if you let them, and in so doing add yet another invaluable dimension to the scope of a garden. We’ll chat, compare pandemic pastimes no doubt, then root the conversation in tales about hens and chicks, stones and boots.

A small thing. A beautiful thing. Keep looking – maybe that’s just what we need now and anytime.

A harvest of crabby delight

You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

Like most of us in this pandemic year, we look for new pastimes – a means to find moments of joy in difficult times.  With the cooling of the season and yes, the turning of the first leaves to autumn gold and red, it means embracing a sense of adventure – one that mingles community with taste!

Case in point – crab apples, Malus.  This town, on the edge of wild, is home to many a crab apple tree.  Many are beloved. Most of the year, after the riot of spectacular spring blooms have faded, you wouldn’t even notice them but come September, well.  Red and yellow fruit brighten against the green leaves in private yards, lining streets, and on the edges of woodlands where their perfume bounces on the breeze.  A scent of – is it cider? – wafts down the streets and tempts passersby. You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

The immediate result here? We played! And right there, on our back deck, beside the painted red rocking chair, a large basket brimming with fruit from two crab apple trees, Malus ‘Dolgo’.

We hadn’t really noticed them until a gardening friend (thanks Allan!) sent an email suggesting we enjoy the bounty from trees he had planted in the community.  Sounded like a fine idea and we wandered over one afternoon eager for a harvest – although honestly unsure what the ultimate result would be.  

Did I mention we were new to this?

Must confess, we didn’t realize we were looking at apple trees at all.  In fact, we were convinced that the apple tree that we were looking for must be hidden behind these plum trees – so thick they were with small fruit.  It only took one bite to push plums out of our minds and to recognize the small, sweet-tart rounds of luscious crab apples! Fast forward – the basket on the deck.

Within the course of a few days, and a well-placed Facebook post, suggestions gleefully flowed for pies, dried fruit, applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly – all shared with the excitement of well practiced tastes.  This was rapidly followed by offers of hand cranked food processors, jelly jars and in one case, of an actual taste tester. The generosity of garden folk was so appreciated when we realized that this simple act of apple transformation into imagined winter delights was going to take some learning.

Now, somewhere in the depths of the pantry we had stored a box of canning jars. The idea had entered our minds years ago but over time the jars had become candles holders, impromptu vases, dust collectors. However, we did have a large pot, a hand crank food processor, and new lids. There was also the seemingly infinite reams of advice on the web, in cookbooks and through the freely shared experiences of friends pulled into kitchens by harvest delights.

These common apples, as they were once known, could have become so many things from jams to pies. But for us, through the shared experiences of those who succumb to the temptations of apples – move over Eve – we washed and we boiled, we strained and we canned. It was the best of times – who knew?

Now we smile to think that downstairs, on shelves tucked against a wall, the dark shadows obscure the rich red of crab apple sauce and crab apple jelly that wait to help us make it through winter, then spring. Once there, the lovely trees will bloom again, a cycle of green, and of friendship, leading us forward to the delights of new days – embracing the bitter and the sweet.

Growing a peopled place

And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Friendship is the invisible ally of gardens, either given freely or sought. 

Marigolds wrapped in a succulent hug

This weekend, a friend came by with a bright, tight bundle of French Marigolds, Tagetes patula. I know this was a special offering as she had grown them in a thick patch from seeds that another friend had given her.  And so we continue an unending circle of garden stories.

Gardens have a way of attracting people – all kinds of people – green people who have plants and stories to share.  I’m one of those now.  It isn’t unusual in the growing season for the end of our driveway to have a series of pots or cut flowers being offered free to a growing home.  Honestly, that’s the sign that I put up beside the offerings so that no one feels anxious when running away with one, two or three. Seeds are shared, plants provided, conversation ensues – often over years. 

Now that I think about it, it would be hard to leave this garden as there are so many footprints of others so well rooted here.  That sprawling mugo pine, Pinus mugo?  The first plant we put in when we bought our home – a gift of love from my mother. I prune it back each year it’s true, but gently.

The lilacs, Syringa?  Well, my gift to Pete of course so he could have sweet smelling shade to enjoy in future years.  That deep purple one?  A planted memory for a friend now gone.

The glossy mat of blue periwinkle, Vinca major? A spreading memory of another who was celebrating the adoption of her baby daughter.  Invasive?  Always risky but not here – it spreads slowly and is well managed by this gardener.

A welcome annual to wrap around a heart – Morning Glory

Those blue flowers scrambling up the wood support of the birdhouse, those lovely unending trumpets and heart-shaped leaves of Morning Glories, Ipomoea? Planted knowing they are loved by a friend now in the city.

Sharing could be as easy as someone coming over unbeknownst to us and planting something in on of our beds.  Guerilla gardeners. Right there, beside the small pond, I now have the dark leaves of the Leopard plant, Ligularia dentata, complementing the riot of day lilies, hostas, sedum and astilbe – it blooms a bright orange in this semi-shade garden and flowers later in the season.  That same friend also gifted me with a tall, stately Fairy Candle or Black Cohosh plant – a name much more interesting than Bugbane.  Did either one of us know the name of the handsome plant? No, it would take another friend, a horticulturalist, who came by and casually asked if I’d smelt the wonderful perfume of my Black Snakeroot, Actaea racemosa .  So much to learn!

A garden is not a place. It’s a journey.

Monty Don

The garden grows through the generosity of others. However, fair warning, that even friendship might go a bit too far when sharing plants that climb, clamour and root far and wide. Much like our Bugleweed, Ajuga, or as I should have known by the charming local name of Marching Soldiers, we realized after the fact that it had a rambunctious nature – but we learn.

The garden grows in spite of this pandemic year and offers up a space for repose. And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Lovely Ligularia offers dramatic leaf colour and shape

Foundations of this place

The property has become a welcome green hug in this time of pandemic and may just be the best distraction there is.

It’s raining today, yay!  I’m at the computer, staring out the window, when I’m pulled into memory of this place – and it’s green.

Green, in my mind, is about nature and gardening – cultivating land, community and story. Going into the green means developing an interesting relationship with something bigger than ourselves and engaging with a community way wider than our own reach.  It involves not just the big picture but the small, the pleasure of slowing down to meet the timetables of seasons, to pause and see.  It means constantly learning and being open to the experiences of plants and the people who tend them. 

It’s been 21 years since we moved here to Mississippi Mills in Ontario, and I value the moments I can just breathe, focus on a season, a plant, a bird, or animal.  The property has become a welcome green hug in this time of pandemic and may just be the best distraction there is.  21 years ago we kept a wary eye on YK2, this year – well – we’re still waiting to see how the impact of COVID-19 will all work out.

2.06 acres on a corner lot and all with fine, green bones. After World War II, the original owners had purchased a larger lot of land – three sections in all – and over the course of a lifetime, raising children and working, they had planted.  There had been a calculating, creative gaze cast over the planting of this former farm field at some point and the map of trees, windbreaks, planting beds and garden structures were evidence of it.  Our land – or the land that we now inhabit – was the second home to this hybrid couple of Canada and England.  It was all quite amazing that it then passed into the hands of an urban couple who, at best, had grown four, maybe five, hostas in the suburbs. 

A large portion of the perimeter is a vast cedar hedge and provides privacy.  Maples – silver, sugar, and Manitoba – are also scattered over the land joined by balsam, spruce, and pine.  We were so lucky in those first years to find a young fellow in town who mapped out and identified all the trees for us, so we knew what we had committed to. Elm are slowly losing their foothold as the rot has set in. One tree lost to time, now stands, blackened, and twisted against the sky, as a macabre reminder that much can change. It will come down in its own time but not until generations of Flickers, squirrels – grey, black, and red, Pileated Woodpeckers and untold others have fashioned homes in the crags of this old snag.  Histories are so much better with fur involved after all.

Lilac planted for a friend now gone – but still here.

Lilacs, white and shades of lavender, tell a tale of our time here and fragrance the air with stories to be told. Lilacs are my partner’s favourite flower and that very first spring, in the middle of a lawn, I planted a deep purple promise whose heavy blossoms now greet us every year. Others were added over the years. This summer we propagated from some of the parent trees to ensure their company remains with us well into time – oh, and of course to shape more gardens.   

Willows loom and shift with the breeze – they remind us of times when we were children and would run through streets with long, flowing wands of green. With the drying that will accompany climate change now and into the future, we know we may lose some of these trees over time and are beginning to succession plant saplings. There was worry when the extended drought and heat caused the silver maples to drop leaves and the trees overall put out so much seed that we found ourselves sweeping off the deck and surrounds in July. These trees are friends of ours – we hurt when they hurt and feel joy when the leaves burst through.  When our friends lost their leaves, we felt it in other ways too – the canopy cools the house but when depleted, the temperature rises for those below. This season though, August rains helped pull them and us through.

Add to this growing palette a house, a barn-shaped workshop, and a teetering glass potting shed, and you have a good idea of what we moved to.  The potting shed would be taken down in time before it sagged into memory and a pergola was put in place, the workshop was painted fire-engine red and festooned with a painted quilt block, and the house remains to anchor it all.  

Finding a green place is to begin an adventure and today a means to survive the long months of pandemic isolation.  Into the green we went, happy, expectant, and wary at the same time. 

Sunflowering

To garden can mean to learn, to cultivate, to share and to wonder, or is that wander?  Today I’m going with wander, a visit elsewhere and a chance to learn from the vision of others – this can be a lifetime of inquiry.

Today we sought out the sheer joy of Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower, whose eternal optimism has blooms turning to face the sun and then following it all the way to nightfall.  Might be a lesson here.

You just don’t walk up to a sunflower, you lean into the field with a smile to match its bold declaration of summer. Set against a blue and cloudy sky, well, perfection! 

A great source of oil and seed for hungry birds and furred varmints, we’re enjoying seeing more of the plant in this area near Ottawa. In this case, an invite to walk through acres of nodding blooms while considering a donation to a farm that harbours animals in need of a home, was an invitation to bliss. Blue skies, acres and acres of yellow, and help for other creatures on the planet – it was perfect.

Although a week day, it was high vacation time and the distraction needs of the pandemic resulted in the parking lot being full but the expansiveness of the land gave us more than enough room to roam safely. What fun to know we could be together, apart, and enjoy a day puncuated by the giggles and laughter of children.

How will this botanic moment mark those that walked this trail and got up close with such beauty? Will yellow become a favourite colour, a seed be planted? We know the rich history of being influenced by the nature around us. Through time, artists have drawn on this botanical beauty and been inspired to inspire us! Think of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers which have brought me to tears in the middle of a museum in Amsterdam, or pause to ponder “Ah! Sunflower” by William Blake connecting life’s journey and aspiration.

Ah, Sunflower, weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the sun;

Seeking after that sweet golden clime,

Where the traveller’s journal done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,

And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,

Arise from their graves, and aspire

Where my Sunflower wishes to go!

William Blake

In this dark year with the shoulder-bending burden of pandemic concerns and hope for a return to normalcy, however defined, taking a few moments to just be is a necessity. A plant that bends to face the light – the wonder of positive phototropism – is primal behaviour to learn from and to shake a skewed perspective to rights. For now.

The Scope of a Garden

A pandemic time is full of its own challenges, and unknowns, but add to it a long, dry period, well, the soul can take a dive no matter how much the mind tries to remain focused on what is known.

Welcome to my interpretation of what a garden is.  Beyond the blooms, shrubs, trees, and weeds outside, I see “garden” as a concept encompassing a creative life, daily musings, the challenges that lurk and the joys of everyday adventure and wonder.  Welcome to my garden and I hope we have much in common.

What a shock to know this thought has churned out in this COVID year when few really know what the future holds or how the present should play out.  Ah well, dive in!

Today is a green day.  Feels like a celebration as the recent rains which filled our barrels with hope, that have caused the grass and clover to return, has also tempered our moods – ok, tempered my mood.  Have you needed to find a focus everyday or have you structured in an order?  I’m finding that one plant might be enough to look at each morning and to wonder about the scope of its existence and place in a greater whole.  Sounds like a refrain from each of our own thoughts these days – at least with a plant, barring something unforeseen – oh like appropriate care – it has a pre-ordained cycle to follow which makes it wonderous!

IMG_20200810_095209_740

Case in point is this violet/blue water flower that surprised me this week – the leaves of this Common Water Hyacinth, Pontederia crassipes, in our small front pond (pondlet really) had me smiling as soon as I spotted it.  Also made me wonder how something so gorgeous could possibly be refered to as “common”.  Harumph.

A pandemic time is full of its own challenges, and unknowns, but add to it a long, dry period, well, the soul can take a dive no matter how much the mind tries to remain focused on what is known.

There was a whisper of water not far away.  It grew in gushes of relief as the clouds swept over the field in front of the house, a field where the silver maples were sighing as they gave up dried leaves. The time of the heat was taking a pause and there was a private celebration played out in every house, every heart.

Think of it as a massive mood broom sweeping away the cobwebs of temperature that clogged and claimed the brain.  A massive broom that put green back where it should be – on the plants, the grass, the soul.