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Weekly Column

8/05/12: Double Delight 

Oxymoron: a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness,” or, “to make haste slowly”

For 18 years fascinating folks have visited Sunnybank Gardens. Today it would happen again.
Two casually dressed boys in their early teens closed the last gate, made their way to a bench near my weeping birch, pulled a small magnetized chess set out of a backpack and began playing. They made quick decisions, or, more often, thought for a while before moving a piece. I peered sleepily through the fringe of my cocoon-like hammock and watched in the still air of late afternoon.

One bespectacled youngster eventually spoke. “Barry, would you say ‘political science’ is an oxymoron? How about ‘library science’?”

Whaaat?? Jolted, I lay there, gripped by suspense. Jeez. These kids were thinking thoughts I never thought kids would think thoughts about.

I took a closer look. They were slightly built, perhaps a bit small for their ages, and certainly unusual: not many youngsters would pull out chess sets and play patiently while pondering esoteric, unrelated questions. That behavior, I thought, smiling, was more the purview of grizzled, elderly men moving pawns around faded boards on hot summer afternoons in New York City’s Central Park. 

Oh, boy, I’d better dump that stereotype!

Barry, wearing jeans, a tee shirt and a solemn expression, glanced at his brother. “Well, as dad says, first define the central term.” Grinning, they recited: “Science- systematic knowledge of the physical or material world through observation and experimentation.” They high-fived, and Barry pondered, then continued.

“Political scientists are usually ideological, and reflexively responsive to favored groups. They tend to make statements based on cherry-picked, manipulated information, wishful thinking, opinion polls- and no independent research.” He shrugged.  “I’d say- yes.” 

“And ‘library science’?” A long pause….“Books are organized according to an alphabetic and numerical system…” More deep thought. Then he sighed. “We should research this one. Why do you ask, anyway?”

“No reason, except that I saw the coupled words yesterday, and suddenly they didn’t seem sensible.”

I must have moved, because they suddenly noticed me folded into the hammock. Barry spoke. “Hi. We toured the garden- is it yours?- and liked it lots. Especially the mirrors. Cool. Are they left out all winter?”

I rose, and went over to them, nodding. “Yep, and yep. They’re ordinary, been-outside-for-ages-mirrors, protected by overhangs.”

I looked down at their board. “Who’s winning?”

“Nobody, yet. But I usually do. Ken tends to be erratic…”

Ken chuckled. “Yeah, but you‘ll get complacent, and then I’ll capture your king. I’m patient.”

“Are you here for the Film Festival?”

Both nodded. “Our parents love this stuff. But we get squirmy in dark theatres on nice days…”
Barry interrupted. “On any day…
"…so we’ll walk around ‘till their movie ends. We’ve been to Traverse City before, and know the layout. Some lady mentioned your garden, so we walked here.”

Ken offered a suggestion. “Put a little chess set in there. You’d be surprised how many people like to play. But then, maybe they’d stay too long…”

I laughed. “A three-piece suit had a long snooze on the big bench, once. As for a chess game, individual pieces might wander off…”

“They’d stay. Who’d find one chess piece useful?” He had a point.

Oh, I had so many questions for these intriguing boys! But just then- Briiing: my phone! Maybe it was my husband, Joe. I excused myself and ran inside to answer. Rats! Computer-Rachel again, trying to tweak my credit card. Robots never give up! Dumping the call, I ran out as they finished their game and were about to leave. Barry’d won again, but Ken had accepted it with equanimity.

I had to ask one more question.

“Hey guys, where’s home?”

“Oh, New York City. We often play chess in Central Park, ‘cause we live near it.”

I waved goodbye, and sat down on the porch steps, grinning. Ha! Central Park! 
Well, old girl, you were almost right: just subtract about 60 years, and add delightful!

7/29/12: Flower Athletes Go The Extra Mile... 


Every single day, from 6 to about 10 a.m., I cull plant corpses. Buckets of them. 

It’s called deadheading.

Ugh. When I first heard that word, 20 years ago, I grimaced. But it accurately describes one of my most important jobs.

Here’s why I can’t neglect this chore.

I’ll imagine myself as, say,…a daylily flower. Oh, boy! I open my petals very early one summer morning to display warm gold, or deep pink, or lemon, purple, or vivid red, perhaps with a splash of cream. My long, slim leaves arch becomingly, and my strong stalk hosts perhaps a dozen other bud-siblings. Each of us has one day to feel sun, or rain, on our petals, to savor the sounds of bees contentedly collecting our essences, to accept admiring comments. It took us months to prepare for this one ‘do and die’ event. (The plant’s official Greek name, Hemerocallis, means ‘beautiful for a day.’)

Ah, but if my sibling’s corpse sags beside me on the only morning I’ll ever know, its long petal-‘tongue’ hanging out, its skin withering, the dead weight dragging down my supporting stalk, I, cheery new flower, am diminished. People avert their eyes. Bees do their jobs without sentiment, and hurry on. It’s obvious what awaits me. My glow dims.

I know. This sounds nutty. Don’t care. It’s exactly how I see it. So, first thing every morning I, their minder, am driven to remove yesterday’s glory, so today’s newly opened beauties can pose for cameras, bask in appreciative sighs, or simply exist, unencumbered.

Nurturing is part of the fun of gardening. And when I move ‘into’ flowers, well…I relearn how to savor simplicity, and life.

Daylilies sometimes re-bloom, but it isn’t usual. Other plants do, all summer, if the gardener deadheads.

Pansies and petunias, especially, gobble up time. Arghhh! I can spend simply ages pinching off old blooms and stalks. It won’t do to remove just the dying flower from these beautiful, tiresome plants. One must remove each little stem, too, which is often buried amid other viable stems. (Details matter.) Otherwise one would face a forest of tiny dead sticks, and lanky growth.

To encourage excellence, I, their minder, must do my part.

Sleepy, ‘I wanna go dormant’ behavior is not allowed. I’ll push annuals and perennials to bloom again, and again, till September 1. (Of course, if I ask for that extra mile, I’d better feed and water them regularly.)

Sometimes, though, I confess I get too tired and hot to search through my cranesbills for the umpteenth time (they like full sun, so I must sit in full sun), so, in this mid-summer’s intense heat, I’ve let one go green...It irks me, though.

If I snip finished spirea blooms down to new buds- a twenty-minute task- they’ll offer a delightful second show.

My butterfly bushes, though, take just seconds to manage. I just pinch or snip off long, browning flowers and stems. Monarch butterflies rejoice in this freshening.

Daisies, especially Shastas, will often offer a second show, but half as tall. I’ll search for tiny leaflets snuggled right next to the big ones on each stem- they might be hiding halfway down- then sever the original exhausted flower’s stem at that place. Soon it’ll bloom again! Some daisies won’t have that tiny indicator, so I’ll snip half way down anyway, near a plant crotch, and hope. It might decide to bud there. Or not. Daisies are moody flowers.

If they’re willing to go for it, though, appreciative fans will cheer each extra bloom. 

Hmmm…This sounds a little bit like a coach encouraging her athletes to go for broke at London’s summer games, doesn’t it?


Well, maybe…maybe not.

7/22/12: The Rest of the Story... 

It was appallingly hot. I stood on a high ladder, trying to paint the decorative lion’s head atop the garden folly. The ancient euonymus, once supported by the structure, had died, and now a patio would fill that generous space. The structure looked shabby, though, because it had been difficult to properly paint it before. Now, teetering high up the ladder with the gallon can perched on top, holding the brush with my right hand, I reached for the rim of the highest board to steady myself, and work.

Hold it! A hornet drifted down to park itself exactly where my lefty had almost rested. It eyed me.

It’s distinctly unsettling to be examined by a hornet while in this position. Was it alone, I wondered, or were there more? What could I do if it went for me?

Careful, Dee. No sudden moves, here.

Another joined it. Then another.

I studied the trio. The creatures had wasp waists (a Victorian lady’s dream), and C-shaped bug-eyes. All nonchalantly cleaned their antennae, but never once looked away. Hornets are inscrutable, but it felt like the insects were evaluating me.

We’ve connected before. When I was 13, I’d slammed the screen door at our Elk Lake cottage, dislodging a big nest in the roof’s overhang above the door. I was instantly blanketed in furious insects, which stung repeatedly without their bottoms coming off. (Bees have just one sting in them. Then they’re gutted trying to pull their lance out.) My mother, hearing my screams, beat them back with a broom, then spent hours swathing me in baking soda paste. When I could function again, I ran to the local library to find out more about these creatures. The information helped me curb developing, irrational fears about insects.

I still remember details:

1. Hornets won’t hesitate to defend their nest if they feel threatened. (Uh-oh. Bobbing heads would constantly mill around under it, making irresistible targets.)

2. Hornets dislike rapid movements, vibrations, or anything that threatens their flight path. (We were banging around, lugging ladders, saws, screw guns and floor planks.)

I rang pest control. The technician confirmed my suspicions. Donning a face screen he puffed some lethal powder into the long slit. Dozens of furious hornets zoomed out, aimed their stingers- then fell out of the sky, dead. I felt deeply sad. But we had to be able to sit there without fear.

Les finished screwing down the plank floor, and left for the day. I re-climbed the ladder to carry on painting. There were no hovering hornets to blame for what happened next.

Too hot and blinded by sun to continue, I gave up, grasped the paint can and prepared to climb down. Somehow the can hit the ladder rim just so, flew up out of my hand, somersaulted, then plummeted to the ground, landing right side up on the brick path. Lots of white paint followed a split second later, splashing down into the flowerbed and coating
the path. (Naturally, the Friendly Garden Club’s 30th Annual Garden Walk was the very next day. Sunnybank’s garden was on it. Gulp.)

Dumbfounded, I clung to the ladder and looked down. It took forever to grasp what had just happened – and what hadn’t.

Two thirds of that paint had opted to remain in the can, now resting peacefully on the path.

Nevertheless, the rest of the story was pretty awful. Mad as a hornet, I dug out three square feet of paint-drowned flowers, and lots of white earth and mulch, and then tried to remove the viscous puddle of paint and spatter that coated a good bit of the walkway. Lots of wipes later I threw in the towel. That gooey mess would never be erased, so, remembering the somersaulting paint can, I simply flipped the bricks over.

Wilting in late afternoon heat, I sat back and sighed. What else could possibly happen? Gull poop in the paint can, that’s what. Snarling, I scooped it out with a thick sedum leaf, -and then sat down again- on the wet brush.


Fortunately, nobody witnessed my histrionic stamp-about – which produced more white footprints. Duh.

Someone once commented that there are three sorts of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who haven’t a clue what’s happening.

Mopping up the latest self-made outrage I had to laugh:

Been there, been there, been there.





7/15/12: Death and Confusion 

Wednesday evening. I padded out of the garage door and into the main garden- when my jaw dropped. Glancing fondly through the foliage at the python-like branches of my ancient, enormous euonymus bush I saw—white. Deep inside the shrub a nasty white film covered almost every major limb! And many leaves were yellow-bellied, and blanketed in white specks! As I stared, a breeze prompted the poor thing to nudge me gently. Then that very branch fell off, landing near my toe.  It fell off.

My cherished euonymus was ill. Oh, so ill. Last week, it was fine; this week--- I could scarcely take it in.

I knew what it was. One look, and I knew. She had Scale – on a grand scale. I stared, trying to absorb this disaster. She’d never, ever been sick. Not once. She’d never felt poisonous sprays, never hosted any disease or been attacked by bugs in the twenty-one years she’d been mine. Now, suddenly, this.

In the hot evening, I wailed, sick at heart. I’d been lulled into complacency by her years of perfect health. I should have checked her more often…

This overgrown, peculiar plant had hosted bird families for decades. She’d sheltered doves, especially, and offered orangey-red berries to brighten the snowscape and feed hungry birds. She’d provided shade to hundreds of people wandering through the garden.

Elderly twenty years ago, she’d grown increasingly unsteady on her pins, collapsing to the ground every time heavy snow slid from the garage roof onto her enormous, sinewy branches. So in 1998 Les and I built the folly, with open boards high above so we could wrap padded straps around selected, thick branches and winch her up. Those ponderous limbs wouldn’t be chafed, and Madame could bask in sun and rain, and never again fret about falling.

Now I sagged, despairing.

But wait! Maybe this attack could be repulsed! I pounced on the computer, hoping to discover and apply some new treatment – but no.

She was done.

The next day Les and I chopped and sawed her gone. It took an entire morning. A zillion baffled, minute insects clung to us. Ugh. Our jeans and arms were white with them.

We saw, as we sawed, that Madame’s core was dying anyway. Extreme age and unrelenting heat had made her fatally vulnerable. 

The death of that old friend left an ache – and a vast, empty landscape.

Finally, the mountainous pile of infested branches was hauled away. I sighed. 

Okay, old girl. Do something creative.

Right. Hmmm…

Well, the folly was there already. Why not tweak it into a patio? Frame an outdoor room with a raised wooden floor, and add a couple of wicker chairs from the front porch. And – don’t add hanging baskets to the big wall. I could barely keep the rest of the garden alive in this awful heat (102 degrees at 6:00 pm).

The outside garage corner contained the last 12-foot remnant of chain link fencing, left untouched in 1992 when I began the garden, because it had supported the euonymus. Now we removed it, too, which left a wide opening to the alley. So straightaway we built a wall. I stained it and fell into bed full of plans, mindful of my very tight budget.

Thursday morning we began work promptly at 8:30.

Mmmmm… a droopy-bottomed hornet flew around my head, mystified by the changed landscape. Two more confused insects inspected Les.  We waved them away. More hornets entered our airspace, looking for the euonymus.

Uh-oh. Houston, we have a problem.

I ran into the house to don my mosquito outfit, and we tried to sort out the situation.

Returning foragers were slipping through a minute slit in the soffit right above us. Ah! Their nest was in there, sheltered and hidden by the late euonymus, perhaps for years! Increasingly concerned about an attack by a phalanx of angry hornets, I rang pest control. Rats! Overwhelmed with other calls, they couldn’t respond till Monday. So we tiptoed around, trying not to rile the disoriented creatures as we laid the patio floor.

I hauled cut boards from the alley into the garden for Les to nail in, while five or six interested hornets continued to hover in our personal space, debating.

Next Sunday we’ll both know how this tale ends…



7/08/12: The Party's Over for Asian Beauties... 

My Asiatic lilies are huge and glorious, but almost done. To keep them lovely as long as possible though, I deadhead, sometimes twice daily. I fit my fingers to the blossom’s bottom, and pinch it off. (It’s easy to tell who’s washed up. A finished flower develops transparent, wrinkled skin. Further along in the morning petals lose strength, and the entire blossom falls.)  Daily bottom-pinching means the petals and elongated seed- ‘plant poop’- won’t litter the garden floor. Madame can then concentrate on showing off her remaining blooms.

Many gardeners position these beauties behind other flowers, because they’re tall, and are boring in their ‘down’ time, but I’ve put them right along the path for maximum impact. Though they have little or no scent, their stunning colors shout summer, up close and personal. These slim, social flowers look best when introduced in groups of 5-7: odd numbers are less- soldierly.  And next summer there’ll be more to enjoy.  The kids will be nestled too close to their parents, though, so relocate them a little way off.

Don’t skimp on food.  Lilies perform magnificently if they have a deep, nutrient-rich bed, regular moisture, and frequent liquid foliar feedings, which are absorbed instantly. (Granular food, triggered only by regular watering, takes weeks to be effective.)

Lily-underpinnings can get messy, so I reach in between the stalks to pull away any less-than-pretty leaf.  Tidying their nether regions keeps them looking their best.

To get maximum bang, give lilies full sun. Offer less, and you’ll get less; growth is retarded, enthusiasm flags, and bud count drops. Annoyed plants show their displeasure by leaning toward the light; take the hint and transplant them.

When the last lovely flower droops and dies, I cut the ‘candelabra’ away, but stifle the urge to chop the enormous stalks to the ground. Bulbs need to store sun power and chlorophyll for more spectacular flowers next season, so I wait a long time (2 months), until their stalks turn completely yellow. Then I cut, leaving three-inch stumps for quick location next spring.

About now, though, unless there’s a plan in place to distract a viewer, my lily areas can be pretty boring. I found some ways to smooth the awkwardness, though.

I plant lantana among the towering stalks early in the season; this delightful annual loves to weave in and around the lilies, and its multicolored blossoms are intriguing.

Licorice, a low-to-the-ground annual, helps, too: those long, frosted silver fingers weave around the base of lily’s head-chopped stalks. And sometimes, if there’s enough space, I plant annual thread-leaved daisies among the stem-poles, charming visitors, who overlook the lilies ripening quietly.

I grow giant, sun-loving canna lilies nearby. These eight-foot high giants are ready to grab the spotlight just when I need them. A mini-forest of startling tropical towers really draws the eye away from old news; vivid orange and red blossoms perch atop stately countenances, bringing gazes up. Canna leaves are green, striped, or rich purple, and could shade a 5-year old. (Warning: don’t put them into the ground until well into June. A hint of frost, and they’re toast.)

Loosely grouped Asian lilies’ ripening stalks can serve as supports for vines, like potted morning glories. Or, if you happen to have a clematis growing nearby, allow some of its very long tendrils to clamber up and through them.

Though seasonally finished, these boring remnants can still be useful for a long time.



7/01/12: Dirt-Common Daisy Talent 

High summer. Higher heat. I was deep in the garden in late afternoon, blackened knees the evidence of my down-and-dirt-y hunt for weeds, houttuynia, and the ever-sneaky lily-of-the-valley, which burrows into my flowers’ beds from the other side of the fence in the dead of night.  I’d rather fight a hundred weeds than have to pry out just one of those deeply rooted, lovely invaders. Once they settle into a disciplined garden, they’ll never leave. Never. Shrub-crawls are a good way to spot them before they mature and multiply. I aim only for control. (My latest strategy for licking Lily is to tear off her lush leaves. Perhaps in a few years she’d get tired of being stripped bare, and concede. Or not.)

Anyway, I was poking around under a large hydrangea yesterday when a sixty-something man lowered himself to the grass and peered at me through its sun-dappled leaves. “Toodleloooo – I’ve a recipe for you.” Mystified, I extracted myself and took a good look at the guy. British, I decided. He wore a neatly trimmed gray mustache; fringed hair was tidily combed over his wide forehead. Knobby, grass-stained knees emerged from wrinkled khaki shorts, and he wore a pale yellow tee shirt picturing an owl wearing glasses. His own wire spectacles sat crookedly on a long, distinguished-looking nose, and of course, they were too loose: his right index finger had full-time employment as an adjuster.   

“I hope I haven’t disturbed you, (yep, English) but when I saw all your lovely feverfew I wondered: are you, by chance, bothered by migraine headaches?”  He pronounced it the British way- mee-graine.

“Rarely,” I replied, intrigued.

“Well,” he ventured, “I’m a herbalist (typically, he’d pronounced the ‘h’); feverfew’s leaves often arrest migraine pain. They resolve headaches of the ordinary sort, as well. In case you, or a friend, should ever feel adventurous, I offer the recipe for feverfew tea, best enjoyed by adding a touch of honey.”

He pressed a rumpled sheet of paper with scribbled directions into my hand. I peered at the small print.

“Oh, thank you! I’ve known that it’s medicinal, but never have followed up.  I’ll brew a pot, should the need arise. It’ll be interesting.”

He adjusted his glasses and smiled. “I’ve truly enjoyed your garden.”

We exchanged smiles, shook hands, and off he went.

Huh. I had scads of feverfew, which grew where it pleased. It’s easy, though, to pluck out a plantlet that might settle where it isn’t wanted.

The other day a scowling lady asked why I allowed so many of ‘these weeds’ to propagate. “Because,” I said, mildly, “they delight me. Nothing eats them; nothing makes them sick. Besides, I think they’re beautiful.” She sniffed, shook her head and left, radiating disapproval.

“Flea-bitten old grouch,” I muttered, uncharitably. I couldn’t imagine my garden without  feverfew.

Just before closing time a young neighborhood child popped in to ask me if I could spare a flower for his visiting granny, who was in the park across the street feeling gloomy. He looked shyly hopeful.

Ha! I had a ‘Bingo!’ moment. “You know,” I said, pointing to the nearest bunch, “feverfew has an interesting sniff, and its daisy flowers seem to last forever. It earned its name because in the old days people who had headaches or fevers found that brewing a tea, using feverfew leaves, would help; aching heads felt better and fevers were fewer!” He giggled. “Best of all, it’s impossible to look at all those bright flowers and not smile. They’re the perfect ‘cheer up’ gift!”   

He grin spread.

I ran into the house, fetched a little baggie, filled the bottom with cool water, trimmed a cheerful clutch of sunshine into a bouquet and zipped-locked their stems inside. He yelled his thanks and dashed off, clutching his treasure.

What fun! Normally these pert plants register only in peoples’ peripheral vision, as I suppose they are as common as dirt.

But today, by golly, they were stars.




6/24/12: A Nerd's Typical Day 


Four a.m. My day began under our king-sized bed. I’d finished making it, then suddenly wondered what lay beneath. I found a two-year-old Popular Mechanics magazine, an ancient golf club-(don’t ask) and two dusty antique wall clocks. Those beauties, flat on their backs, hadn’t ticked off time in a decade. Huh. I’d forgotten they existed. It was long past time to renew my vow: sell anything not used for a year. Don’t think twice. Just do it.

I composed an ad right then.

Mid-morning. I set to work weeding under a big shrub in the intense heat- while pondering mad dogs and Englishmen out in the midday sun- when two men strode in, talking rapidly. One was disheveled and agitated. It wasn’t flowers that dominated the conversation, but bedbugs.

…“and the exterminator’s there, but I won’t let ‘em spray poison on my clothes and pillow. Janet’s mad – wants me to toss them, but I love that pillow…#%$&! Prolonged heat does kill the buggers, but how’s that possible? Do we seal and cook the house? Bake them in our oven??

“Excuse me,” I interrupted from under the euonymus, hoping they wouldn’t get mad.

“I couldn’t help but overhear. There’s a solution. Use your big portable oven.” Startled and confused, they peered down at me. I plowed on. “Go home, seal your pillows, blankets and clothes into black contractor bags and toss them into your car- which you must park in full sun. Wait a few hours.

100% Megabugadeath.”

They stared. I carried on. “It’s so hot already that metal cars are near to roasting. Every bedbug will be six feet up in record time.”

The victim’s face blossomed into a wide grin. “You know, that. just. might. work.” 

They hurried out, muttering, “It’s only 10 o‘clock…”

I sat back on my heels, grinning with satisfaction. I knew a bit about bedbugs from the awful saga of friends in another state. The creatures had invaded their home, probably via a visitor’s suitcase. (There seems to be an epidemic of bedbugs, lately, in this country.) This one interesting sniglet of information had taken root in my brain, and now I’d had the satisfaction of passing it on.

Why had those men come here in the first place? To consult the- oracle-under-the-shrub? I adjusted my mosquito veil and grinned. The world is full of mysteries.

Another pernicious weed yielded to my probing fingers. See? You don’t always ruminate about garden-y things, Dee. Well, yeah, I do. I think a lot about the bugs who live out here. Mostly with angry admiration. Bedbugs fit that thought pattern, don’t they?

Now I tried to think ordinary grass-thoughts. Wily green blades often tiptoe into my flowerbeds to arrange themselves among the innocently accommodating blades of, say, flashy Red Baron grass, and by golly, I’m fooled – for a while. Fortunately, though, ordinary grass still hasn’t figured out how to turn red from the waist up. So I knelt out there in the boiling sun and stared quietly for a while at the invited grass- which starts out green- then did a slow scan. What didn’t look quite right? Aha! There! With a growl of satisfaction I yanked a tall, skinny masquerader out. They’re stealthy, but this gardener defines persistent. I pounced gleefully on others that had quietly hunkered down amid the Cranesbill geraniums.

Cheap thrills like these keep me going.

Still on hands and knees I peeked under lavender and daisies, hunting for horrid Houttuynia. Four years ago this little groundcover’s gorgeous, multicolored leaves had made me swoon. Love-struck, I brought one little honey home and tucked it in. I ignored my own rule: Never Invite Anyone into my Beds Until I’ve Done a Thorough Background Check. I’ll pay forever for allowing passion to overrule common sense.

Darling Houttuynia had lived here for only one summer when, checking under another plant, I saw...

But denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. Nah, I’d thought; she wouldn’t have had time to fool around...She’s so sweet, so little and pink….Right! Once again, I’d underestimated a plant’s capacity for mastering multiplication while basking in cow poop.

That morning I dug out six fat newborns, cursing. Later I discovered another perky infant forty feet away. Idiot!

Ouch! Somebody had crawled up my pant leg and was dining on my calf. Bugged, I bolted out of the bushes, ran to the garage, hopped out of my cargo pants and shook them, hard. Something little fell out and flew off. A closer inspection revealed a trail of bites. Rats! I’d forgotten to rubberband my cuffs.

Bugs absolutely love me. It’s mystifying, and maddening.

Oh, I was hot and bothered! I threw on my pants, dumped my hat on the lawn and snatched up a hose. Full blast, I thought, and bent over to unleash a torrent of cold water, drenching my neck and hairy head, cooling my temper and me. Ahhh. Much better. Sopping wet I stood there, not thinking a single thought, when- Ding! In walked four somberly dressed visitors, probably coming from the funeral home two doors down. There I was, hose-to-nose, soaked soggy and grinning sheepishly, my fly still unzipped. (Oops.) The folks stared, laughed nervously, and edged away.


Bugs, heat, hoses and grass-dumb behavior-

All in all, a gardenerd’s typical day.








6/17/12: In Pursuit of Simplicity 

 In Pursuit of Simplicity


Today I look out the window at the dawn, and find a smile emerging as well. The alley’s new Blue Garden is lovely and its residents look happy. I am really enjoying my role as their minder.

The best, most enduring contentment lies in learning to appreciate simple pleasures, like the intoxicating sniff of lavender and purple basil, or the wonderful baby-soft feel of the big necklace of lamb’s ears that borders the area. I laugh at the absurd, fearsome-looking prickles on Nigella, which, when touched, are as delicate as fine lace. Her name- two names, actually- delight me. ‘love-in-a-mist,’ her flower, evolves into ‘devil-in-a-bush’ when those wonderful, inflated seedpods form. They’re like teeny Goodyear blimps, sporting lavender stripes on puffy green pods.

‘Come hither’ Nigella is one of my favorite seedy guests. She was just passing through one day a decade ago via a bird’s droppings, liked her situation, and stayed. I am so happy she’s happy here.

I love the tall, pencil-thin stalks of Verbena bonariensis, which zips four feet straight up from an unimpressive twiglet. She sports little twin leaves that poke out from her skinny stem like an apology, reminding me, absurdly, of a penguin’s stumpy, retired wings.  But this verbena’s delicately gorgeous blue flowers always draw appreciative comments. Here and there I’ll grow a mess of these uber-thin beauties right up front; I can see right through them to the garden bed behind. (For those readers who aren’t gardeners, it’s conventional wisdom that tall plants should be placed in back, middle-sized ones in the middle, and littler ones up front. I frequently ignore that dictum. Just because.)

Sadly, verbena is annual this far north.

Then there’s Eryngium, a perennial sea holly. The very definition of standoffish and bristly, she commands attention, glowing blue and sterling silver in full sun. I wear thick gloves when tidying this formidable plant. She’ll make me yell if I forget.

Like Queen Elizabeth, stunning Eryngium must be admired from a distance. And she won’t be dislodged: her taproot is long and deep.  The challenge is to get her comfortable, then stand back respectfully and applaud her raiment.

Remember when I told you once of Miss Wilmott’s Ghost? That primly proper Victorian lady, who’d mastered gardening in her native England, liked to surreptitiously scatter Eryngium seeds in other people’s plots, in a sunny spot. The sea holly kept returning long after she’d died. Wilmott’s annoyed admirers muttered that maybe they were being haunted by the formidable old lady’s ghost. Thus the holly’s ‘pet name.’

A burglar would be ‘hollyfied’ if he invaded this flower’s bed. Double ouch!

(Once, a few years ago, Queen Elizabeth woke one morning to discover a man in her bedroom who wasn’t Philip. She kept her head and stiff upper lip, ordered tea, then pressed a secret button while chatting with him. It must have seemed years till the cops pounced. Buckingham Palace Security was mega-tightened: some people lost their…jobs.

Sea holly growing underneath her bedroom window would have nailed that guy.

(Why did that memory pop into my head? Dunno.)

Then there’s Leymus, a big, handsome blue-bladed grass that must be jailed for life. I’ve got one trapped in the alley- and another in the main secret garden- in tall, buried bottomless Rubbermaid trashcans. Leymus will run amok if not firmly controlled.  But alas, I can’t live without him. So, I keep him locked up. One big hunk along the walk has been imprisoned for thirteen years.

Spiderwort is another bully, but so alluring I’m charmed into accommodating him. Those royal blue flowers, along with the dangly (seed) balls underneath, are riveting. He’d quickly be a ‘wort’ on the landscape if I didn’t stay one step ahead of his incurable habit of rapidly enveloping horrified neighbors. We have an uneasy truce. I am regularly ruthless with shovel and knife; he grudgingly accepts what he cannot change - because the alternative- total obliteration- is unthinkable.

Jeez, You’d be right to note that the ole girl is wandering, but darn it, this stuff is what I think about. And smile about. Because that Blue Garden- and all my flowery residents- are still fun, while becoming simpler to competently manage.

Simpler- beginning in earnest this year- is good.



6/10/12 Aphid Apocalypse 


Two weeks ago I waited for the sun to rise, then moved happily outside. Wow! Plants (and weeds) were rocketing up.

I walked around, making notes, before wandering into the alley. The rose garden’s twelve big bushes were full of fat buds. Glossy leaves gleamed in the sun, which was just peeking over the east rim of the fence.

BUT. A closer inspection revealed aphids on one bush’s buds, piled on top of one another two or three deep. Incredible. Gritting my teeth, I blasted the creatures with jets of water, and then applied Rotenone. From now on, constant vigilance would be necessary.

Then I needed to weed, prune, and tie climbers’ canes to the garden wall, while being stabbed for my trouble. And I’d have to begin the thorny task of deadheading each bush very soon. I winced in anticipation.

Suddenly, out of the blue, I sagged. In fact, I actually plopped down in that alley and put my head on my knees, feeling inexpressibly weary. What was happening?

I knew. The words stuck for a minute, but then- POP- out they poured.

“I can’t- no, won’t do this anymore.”

“Why?” asked my muse.

“Well,” I sighed, “I don’t want to. I’m tired, and it isn’t even properly morning, yet. And there’s only me to maintain everything- which I prefer. BUT — I’m waaay too fat with flowers that demand huge blocks of time, money, and my aging body. This. Must. Change.”

Sitting out there, I sniffed the cool morning air. Ahh, lavender and roses, my favorite perfumed combination. A sprinkler clicked on; a chipmunk whizzed past my booted foot; a door slammed somewhere, and a car rumbled down the alley past me, oblivious to the heap of occupied clothes by the gate.

For a long time I warmed the asphalt, thinking. This group of exquisite, but highly bred and sensitive plant ‘royals’ needed servicing in so many important ways disproportional to the rest of my garden. They eroded my time, my wallet, and my hands and knees, not to mention requiring pest-poisons I don’t need elsewhere. Though I loved them, I faced a reality.

The roses had to go.

The decision was a huge relief.

Here’s the deal. I’d made a promise to myself years ago. The minute I slipped from being ‘master’ to ‘slave’ of this garden, some part of it would vanish. I wouldn’t second-guess. I’d just do it – make things disappear.

And that’s exactly what happened. I rang Les. He came. We gloved up, dug and yanked. Thirty minutes later, there was nothing.

A friend came right over to adopt every bush. Sarah would give them much more space and sun.. She drove away, the bewildered roses peering out the windows. I refused to wave. They were gone. I was left with cored earth.

(Three rose bushes still live inside the garden walls, and one’s by the front walk. I haven’t banished them all.)

Plump, scented lavenders sat forlornly in the big, empty beds, but I felt not a twinge of regret.  Instead, a wave of new energy infused me. A much simpler Blue Garden would be perfect here!

I transplanted more lavender, veronica and a butterfly bush- ‘Purple Knight’- from the secret garden, where they’d sulked for years. Not enough sun.

I trotted off to the nursery to buy a flat of purple and blue petunias, and a cool blue leymus grass the same antique copper color as my fence. Hmmm… why not toss in pink geraniums to add zest? Wow! Soon this new garden would be splendid. Best of all, it would require nearly zero maintenance. (Well, I’d have to deadhead the petunias daily- but that would take 30 seconds.)

Hey! Why stop there?

The Faerie Garden’s high maintenance brick path vanished. 600 were lifted, cleaned and tidily stacked, ready to sell. Simplicity was the carrot in front of my nose. There’d be no more hours on my knees pulling a zillion weeds from between them. Bye-bye to the grass and steel edging. Instead, I continued the soft, wood-chipped path that began at the front porch, moved the faerie fountain into the center, and allowed the ostrich ferns, Labrador violets and celandine poppies to romp. A woodland garden emerged.

Maintenance? Minutes a week.

Finally, I looked hard at the Brick Walled Garden’s interior. And made it vanish. Instead, another soft, meandering wood-chipped path emerged. Plants needing almost no tending- lamium, variegated iris and ground-hugging veronica- were moved in. Potted annuals decorate the fountain area.

I’m absolutely bone-tired, but delighted.

I’m still Master of all I survey. It’s not a retreat, exactly- merely advancement in another direction, to cultivate my ‘happy-chondriacal’ nature.

I’m changing: the garden must, too.  It’s fine to have and to hold, but not too tightly, or for too long.

The bigger challenge is to accept what is happening with grace and humor.

That goal will never change.








Doing The Dream 


One cold February day Joe glazed over as he looked out the window at the snow-dotted garden. I looked closer. Hmmm. Something was up. “Dee,” he mused, “what would you think if I booked a ticket to Spain to motorcycle through its southern countryside for a week or two?

Aha! Joe’s always dreamed of motorcycling somewhere in Europe. It’s been on his ‘bucket list’ since college. He loves to explore the lovely Grand Traverse peninsula on his big, quiet BMW, with me happily perched behind. (My first sight of him was on his vroom-vroom rickety 300cc red Honda Dream at the University of Michigan, in 1965. Motorcycle rides were not allowed by my father, so, of course, I hopped right on, delighted to cling to such a handsome fellow!)

But Spain?

Well, why ever not? It’s exotic, and intriguing, and he’d travel with his nephew, Sky, and his lovely wife, Megan. Both speak Spanish well enough to make all the arrangements, and interpret. Joe would just settle back, ride his bike, and relax into the experience.

Frankly, a proper vacation was long overdue: for thirty-eight years he’s dedicated himself to his cardiology practice, with few breaks. So, after a moment of surprise, I was thrilled.

“Yes!” I cheered. “Go for it!”  He grinned, relieved.

One minute later he’d rung Sky in California: the trip began to take shape. Joe studied essential Spanish phrases, and packed and unpacked his duffle till he’d pared it down to almost nothing. A former Marine, he knew what was important. My idea that he wear, then toss, his old clothes, rather than hand-washing them, was embraced.

I wouldn’t go on this adventure. May was garden prep time; I’d be happy mucking around in mud and flowers. But we’d share everything via Skype and e-mailed phone photos.

Joe’s anticipation and excitement were half the fun. He ordered a special, very cool black motorcycle jacket with built-in, but easily removable, CO2 cartridges that would activate like an airbag if an accident happened. He’d carry his black helmet aboard in a special, soft bag.

Two weeks before departure he woke a half-hour earlier each day to gradually adjust to the six-hour time difference.

The trip went perfectly. Spanish weather cooperated; the two huge, quiet motorcycles ran like velvet. Megan, sitting behind Sky, videoed Joe riding behind them, and captured some really interesting scenery with her mini-camera. She was a marvelous ‘biker-mama.’ Nothing fazed her.

Joe loved it all: there were bugs in his teeth from grinning while whizzing along.

Sky (a former commercial jet pilot who’s been abroad many times) booked charming local hotels with tiny balconies that occasionally served as front-row seats for local religious festivals passing below. They sampled endless tapas (Spanish-style snacks, canapés or creative finger food) and explored fascinating towns. Alhambra’s magnificent castle and gardens wowed them, but a bullfight in Seville was too hard to watch. Four were scheduled for that one afternoon: the first one was their last. Ugh! The three of them felt sick. (It wasn’t only the bull’s tormentors who triumphed, though: during the show the annoyed animal snagged the matador with his impressive horns and effortlessly tossed him over the wall into the packed, cheering crowd. The guy eventually emerged, shaken and bruised, to dispatch the huge animal in the usual ritualistic way.)

They rode miles of hilly southern California-like countryside, explored white-stuccoed villages and towns perched on the edges of sheer cliffs, and even swam in the Mediterranean Sea. And, of course, they booked a show featuring flamenco dancing, a uniquely Spanish art form which mixes percussive footwork with expressive hand and body movements, accompanied by an expert guitarist.

The Spanish people were always warmly welcoming. (One French landlord, though, glowered at his guests, curling his lip at even small requests. He seemed perpetually put-upon.)

Every time I opened my computer I’d find a 30-second movie featuring one of his tiny hotel rooms, or enormous, oddly pruned trees, or stunning, fountained gardens, or outdoor restaurants in the middle of huge plazas, where they’d slow-dine until nearly midnight, in the Spanish way. Once, he sent really startling videos of a headless man wooing Megan, and a spangled ‘goat,’ dancing! Joe’s laughter was always in the background.

In my chair-nest every evening I’d fly- via Google Earth- to the towns where they were, to navigate their cobbled streets. Sometimes I could type in the hotel’s address, and zip there. Magic! 

When I drove down to Detroit to fetch him, Joe looked 10 years younger, and wore a huge grin. This adventure turned out exactly as he’d hoped it would.

Next time I’ll go, too—maybe to France, to dine daily in one-star restaurants after an exploratory day on the road. Why not? Dreams cost nothing, but can give birth to wonderful, unique experiences.

Vive la motorcycle!