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Weekly Column

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!





5/27/12 Bugged! 


Every season, but especially in May and June, visitors see me smack myself as I garden. Bugs bug me!  Flies, especially, find me delectable.  It’s not unusual to see a few dancing attendance around my nose. That protuberance is often where it shouldn’t be, in a fly’s opinion, like under a bush, where I sometimes discover- and must clean up- bunny-parts discarded by the neighbor’s cat, who often visits my garden in search of a midnight snack. As I work the flies will buzz around me, and occasionally bite.

But more insidious beasties- no-see-ums- have discovered me!  These minute, stealthy horrors love to bite around my eyes, and I honestly don’t feel a thing until about ten minutes later, when it becomes hard to see. I’ll rush into the house for OTC cortisone cream, hoping to contain the damage.  But, alas, my face has already ballooned, as though I’d inhaled ten meals at warp speed. My eyes become slits. This makes life difficult for perhaps three days. Though my predicament’s not particularly painful, I look absurd. 

Once again, reluctant to apply obnoxious gnat-repelling gunk, I’ve created my own problems.

I do own- and wear- a dark, fine mesh veil from the local camping store, which effectively covers me down to mid-chest. When I go outside early, mosquitoes are eager to eat me: this thwarts them pretty well. (Heavy cargo pants prevent biters from indulging below stairs.) The problem? It’s dark under there. I wander about in a net-fog; things are indistinct, colors are muted, and the thin veil often bunches and snags as I crawl under things to weed. This annoyance, though, is still better than being bested by bugs.

Sometimes nervous passersby take a long look, and then mutter to friends, “There must be a lot of bees in that garden.”  Fortunately, though, most will casually comment, “Wow- too many bees?”  So I explain. We laugh, and trade insect stories.

Thumbing through National Geographic’s catalogue this spring I noticed a nifty lightweight, cream-colored parka, designed for bug-lures like me. Intrigued, I ordered one- and they really work. The draw-stringed sleeves have airy vents right to the waist; the hood sports a mesh face panel that guarantees immunity from munchkins. Best of all, it doesn’t snag bushes. But it does collect dirt. Too late, I’ve discovered dark green ones in other gardening catalogues. Ah, well. The one I own will have to do.

Folks have offered fascinating repellent suggestions. One earnest gentleman swore by flypaper. Oblivious to everything but potential hanging places he enthusiastically volunteered to foot the bill for the first sticky packet of ten.  My mind boggled as I imagined loads of fluttering flypaper flapping invitingly amid the flowers, creating insect road-rage…

A thoughtful child suggested I staple narrow flypaper sheets to my hat brim to snare flies before they bit my eyes.  He was delighted with himself. I promised to consider it.

I did, for a mille-second, but wandering around dangling sheets of tiny gnat corpses just doesn’t appeal. Besides, hat-brimmed flapping flypaper will always nail noses. It’s a law of nature. (I had a mad impulse to call Paris: hat-ty haute couture designers might be lured by its off-the-wall possibilities. CNN recently allowed us meat-ier mortals a peek at the eye-popping apparel worn by lengthy, skeletal women wobbling unsteadily down Paris fashion show ramps. Decorated with feathers, raccoon shoes and paper skirts they could don haute flypaper headgear and not turn a hair.)

These sorts of creative solutions may fly-in-the-face of reason, but they’ll never fail to capture laughter.

*Oh- today the secret garden is officially open. Not done- it will never be done- but do come and have a look- unless it rains. The dirt has been flying for weeks because I’ve completely redesigned three of the seven gardens. Look for a veiled lady with hair askew and bugs circling, wearing a huge smile. Hooray!





5/20/12: A Two-Faced Lassie to Love 

Many plants I grow have intriguing, often ridiculous pet names I simply can’t resist. Take, for example, “love-in-a-mist.”  A bird introduced this delicate, sun-loving flower to me years ago; I fell head-over-teakettle in love.  Just gazing at her undoes me.  She’s delectable, dressed in a blur of spiny, but touchable green ‘leaves’ no wider than a penciled dash, that, when massed, look exactly like, well, love, in a mist.  Then, to top it off, a glorious china-blue or white daisy-like, shaggy flower emerges triumphantly atop the fluff, the essence of charm.

I melt.

But wait! The fun’s not over. After blooming, she forms outrageous green and burgundy-striped horned, round seedpods, often an inch across, atop each stem. Long, lethal-looking spikes scream, “Don’t touch!” Pooh. It’s a sham.  They’re just as tame and absurdly charming as her flowering stage was.  Delightfully, this phase is called “devil-in-a-bush.”  Oh Lordy!  How could I NOT sigh, and succumb?

There’s more. This hardy annual (which ignores light frosts) cheerfully reseeds; just to be sure, though, I pounced on a seed packet of Nigella damascena, the enchantress’s proper name, at a garden center ten springs ago; after a nice, soaking rain I dribbled the little black dots around the sunniest parts of the garden in early April. Sure enough, in due course, (about 6 weeks,) up popped fuzzy stems, in clumpy, misty little clusters, and finally, the flowers (which, infrequently, can also be a gorgeous, soft pink). Gardening books recommend thinning; I don’t bother. Oh- too much water rots young plants; too little withers the foliage. Occasionally, a little snort of fast food, like Miracle-Gro, is appreciated. She lives cheap.

“Miss Jekyll,” a double form, is my favorite; look for that name on the seed packet.  (That prim, visually impaired little Victorian lady designed gently flowing gardens, full of lovely colors, textures and varying bloom times, revolutionizing the way people perceived their own plots.)

Nigella, by the way, has an uncanny knack for knowing where she looks good.  She loves my Japanese blood grass, partners with ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, snuggles coyly among the roses, cheerfully enhances my woolly thyme, and looks smashing against purple basil’s rich essence. But here’s the thing: this lovely, wispy, whimsical beauty chooses. I don’t. She moves exactly where she pleases, when she pleases. I accept her choices, even if some are unconventional.  She doesn’t care a fig for color wheels, preferring instead to expand my horizons, introducing me to novel color marriages I never would have imagined. I can’t remember when we’ve ever disagreed. But Madame absolutely refuses to be transplanted; she sinks a very long, but easily extracted taproot.  If you have your knickers in a twist about her decisions, simply tug her gone.

When those amazing seedpods dry to a pale parchment and actually crunch, they’re ‘done.’ Biggish breezes will eventually snuffle through your beds; the dotty black seeds will gleefully escape their pods and catch a ride to somewhere nearby, brightening up that place.

Feel like sharing a good thing? Pluck a parchment pod or three, and pop them into a zip-lock bag; make someone you love happy. Tell them to scatter some seeds over damp earth to, er, suggest where these babies might want to grow up. Mama Nature will think about it, and maybe agree with you, or select a spot that she likes better.

Her surprising choices make each season an adventure.

This gem keeps on coming, has a quirky sense of humor, is never sick, never bug-whacked, loves to sunbathe, and is always good for a giggle. Flexible, she doesn’t mind if her soil is so-so. Best of all, once I’m accepted, she’ll never dump me.

This, fellow gardeners, is true love.







5/13/12 An Unforgettable Cat Tale 

Dear readers; As I am traveling I've decided to republish a column I wrote some years ago about our family cat's adventure on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, where my mother and her husband, David, lived for five years, until 1981.  This, and many other adventures, may be found in my book, The View From Sunnybank, sold at Horizon Books in Traverse City.

Animals are incredibly resilient.  I saw a cat the other day, walking quietly on a leash with her owner, not seeming to mind the snowy scene. This pussy, rescued from a cruel situation, was mending in a loving home. Her sleek marmalade coat reminded me of Jinji-cat, who lived the first 5 years of her long life on the Isle of Skye, in a snug country cottage with my mother and her beloved husband, David.

Jinji, a spayed, attractive tortoiseshell kitty, was friendly, but independent, preferring to live outside most of the time. As David puts it,

“I always gave her the choice; before I locked up for the night I’d hold the door open.  If she wanted out, she went; if not, she’d spend the night in her bed in the kitchen.”

She loved to wind around their legs, answering their questions with meows. Jinji would often bring them gifts, like horrified, wriggling rabbits or dead mice, and occasionally even birds, which she’d deposit at their feet, looking pleased with herself.

One Sunday morning, though, when Jinji was about three, David got a terrible shock. When he opened the door to let her in for breakfast and a fireside snooze, he found her sitting quietly on the stoop, looking up at him. She held out her front leg, like an offering, too exhausted to meow. Clamped firmly to her small paw, which seemed to be nearly severed, was a huge steel trap, complete with heavy chain; the whole thing weighed about four pounds. It must have been unthinkably painful to stagger over miles of wild terrain to her home, dragging the chain.

My mother held her while David gently pried the hideous jaws open. Jinji, her eyes closed, allowed this. In a remarkable demonstration of her trust in them, she briefly purred.

David comments:

“We drove her to into the little village of Portree and woke the vet, who carefully examined her, but could do nothing. The skin was broken; her paw was crushed. His advice? Trust to nature. We took her home and put her to bed, where she fell deeply asleep for two days. On the third day she weakly asked to go outside, where she somehow managed to scrape a hole and do her business, cover it, then hobble back to bed. For weeks, except for brief, painful visits to the garden, she would sleep, eat a bit, and lap milk. During this time I wrote a letter to the local newspaper offering to return the trap to its owner, firmly attached to a certain part of his anatomy. No one claimed it; the police took it away.”

“Although illegal, some crofters would fix these traps to fence post tops to catch the hated “hoodies”—hooded crows which prey on new-born lambs.”

“As the weeks went by Jinji tentatively put her leg to the ground; after about four months, she could walk on it. After five months she could extend and retract her claws.  She began spending more time outside; with her claws ready for action, we felt she was as good as new.”

Eventually, in 1981, she, and they, moved to the west of England, to our present country home, Bryn Garth Cottage. 

There, for the next fourteen years, unaffected by her terrible ordeal, Jinji thrived, along with the family dog, Kate (who has her own amazing story). Finally, at age nineteen, she died in David’s arms.

He puts it best: “Her life was idyllic; she was cared for, but never pampered, and given perfect freedom to be a cat.”

Lucky Jinji.


5/6/12: A Chainlink Fencelift 

 Dear friends:

I’ve been asked by many readers to publish this 2010 column again. It’s crammed with ideas!


Sunnybank visitors who are constructing their own gardens sometimes ask how they might cheer up their drab, no-color chain link fences.  Consider these fun ideas!

Find a refrigerator box. Cut it open to create a much larger area.  Prop it behind the fence to capture extra paint. Cover the grass underneath with a tarp, then spray-paint the fence black or forest green. One lady sprayed hers a wine color to compliment the trim on her home. She made her gate a warm tan. In California, a woman spray-painted a meandering rainbow road along the entire length of her navy blue fence, and placed a huge yellow pot of colorful flowers at its end.  So clever!

Sometimes it’s possible to pry/saw off the post caps to poke long lengths of black or white flexible PVC pipe (easily painted) deep into their hollow cores (for stability). Bend gently to form an arch. Skip the next post and put each pipe’s other end into alternating posts, creating a woven affect. Then, coax vine tendrils to weave through the fence and onto the arches. Clematis terniflora (sweet autumn clematis) can grow 40 feet. Millions of scented white flowers smother it in September. Or, consider Boston ivy’s stunning red autumn foliage. It blankets buildings! Both offer three seasons of total leaf cover. (Ivy and clematis leaves fall in fall, but snow will collect on their thicket of bare vines, making intriguing patterns.)

Or, plant a climbing rose. My sister painted her south-facing chain link fence black, and introduced a Seven Sisters climbing rose. She wove the canes through the fence as necessary, and now it’s buried in gorgeous pink blooms for weeks in midsummer. The deep green leaves remain until well into autumn. The fence has effectively vanished.

Vines and roses take time to grow and train. But if you’re patient, in three years you’ll have a living wall. (The first year they’ll sleep while they establish themselves underground: the second year they’ll creep: the third year they’ll leap!) Meanwhile, your face-lifted fence looks fresh and interesting.

One guy wove vinyl window shade slats through his fence’s links, then spray-painted everything. He effectively blocked the view of his neighbor’s yard, and recycled what normally would have been discarded. Bonus: the slats were easy to remove or replace.

Consider building wooden pillars around the fence posts. (I’ve done this at Sunnybank.) Then frame out the fence’s edges between the pillars. No digging is necessary, as your existing fence already has a cement foundation. And why keep the pillars the same height as the original posts? Go twelve inches higher. Add thick, loosely hung rope swags that travel from pillar to pillar so vines can scramble along them. Wow!

Fountains add the sound of falling water that invites you, and visitors, to tarry awhile. Hang a decent-sized one from the fence. For fun, hang another one further down its length. Foliage will conceal the electric cord(s). Bury the rest of each cord inside PVC pipe that would run just under the grass to an outlet.

Create a hanging garden by attaching flower boxes crammed with cascading plants. Sturdy and tough, the fence will accommodate their weight easily.  Heck, call the whole thing— fountain and plants—“Babble-on.”

Hmmm. Spray-paint it glossy white—or draw a garden on weatherproof outdoor stucco panels and attach them to it—or have each family member design a panel—or espalier an apple tree to it—or install an old mirror over the links, then surround it with vines to add a reflective element, and a bit of mystery—or weave tomatoes and morning glories through it—or tie a tarp to the high poles you’ve inserted in the fence posts to make an interesting, shady spot for adults in a corner of the garden – or attach the tarp to the fence and create a tent for the kids so they can look out at their veggie or flower garden – the possibilities are nearly endless.

Remember: Nothing ventured

4/29/12: Freezing Flowers and Featherheaded Folly 


Egad! My computer offered the latest temperature prediction: though it was 68 degrees now, the mercury would plummet to 28 degrees tonight, followed by – gulp! - 23 degrees tomorrow and Saturday- an incredible 40-degree dive!

Rats! I’d need to buy frost blankets, then lay them while battling gusty 25-30 mile-per-hour winds. Emerging plants - especially my infant hostas, the two thalictrums and the four old fashioned hydrangeas, whose buds would probably freeze and drop off, anyway - would be grateful. (Four 90-degree March days had fooled everybody into growing like stink.)

Alas, Stella magnolia’s lovely blossoms would not survive this. Oh, well.

I left a local nursery with an armload of 5’x 50’ wisp-thin blankets, plus a fat box of garden pins, and Les and I struggled to cover all the vulnerable foliage while gusts tried to blow the delicate sheets to China. It was deep night before the wind finally diminished. The temperature read 28 degrees at 4 a.m., precisely as predicted.

The tender foliage had coped. Barely. Tonight, though, makes me really pale. 23 degrees! That sort of cold burns.

As we paused from our labor to enjoy a cup of tea in the late afternoon sunlight in the main secret garden, Juliet Mallard (I always dub visiting lovey-dovey ducks as ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’), who’d been snoozing in a sun-warmed, water-filled crease in my huge fountain cover, woke, yawned, wing-stretched, and quacked downy-soft chuckles to her love, who was always inches away. Suddenly she stiffened and looked around more carefully. AWK!! Romeo was gone!

I’d stumbled over these lovebirds for days, overhearing their murmured endearments. He’d been her shadow. Now, though, she quacked loudly, then leaped out of the watered crease and onto the grass, alarmed. “Where’d you go? Where ARE you??”

Then, she looked right up at us and quacked that same question. My neck hair rose.

“We haven’t seen him,” we said, palms open, heads shaking, and, wilting with disappointment, she circled the big fountain, orange feet flapping through the long grass, neck extended, wings half-open, calling. No Romeo. She flapped through nearby flowerbeds, calling, calling, and even searched the sky for predators, or his silhouette. No sign. Rushing back to us she peered waaay up at 6’4” Les, asking one more time: “Are you sure you haven’t seen him?” We repeated ourselves. Trust me: that duck understood, from our tones and expressions, that we were clueless. She rushed up the walk and brushed by our legs, eyes wide, beak open, voice cracking with anxiety. We felt upset, too, and riveted by this ducky drama.

Here’s the thing: Juliet was speaking. Pitch, intensity and volume clearly conveyed her distress, confusion and, yes, fear.

Romeo was never absent.

Juliet crossed the lawn into the Library Garden’s beds, peering under foliage, her quacks ringing through the property. She was near panic. Had a hawk snatched him?

Suddenly we heard a whoosh! Romeo, resplendent in his gorgeous emerald plumage, flew right over the North Gate, settled into the lush strawberry patch by the kitchen tower about 50 feet away from us, and quacked loud, masculine reassurance: “I’m here!”

Juliet’s whole demeanor changed. We pointed the way, and she rushed across the garden toward him, her quacks suddenly tender. Very soft, continuous chuckles conveyed her relief. She smiled. Scoff if you want to, but that duck smiled. Her whole body relaxed. She looked so happy! They nuzzled. Her world made sense again. There were no recriminations, no cold shoulder, no icy eyes or accusatory glares. Just affection. Cold garden, warm hearts.

We decided he’d sneaked across the street to Hannah Park to indulge in a quick Boardman River paddle and a worm dinner before flying back, reasoning she’d never know he was gone. Five minutes sooner and he’d have been right.

Honestly, we were gobsmacked. Ducks do talk, but this duck-to-people exchange seemed, well, a little bit magical.

Knowing my shivering plants had warm blankets, I burrowed under my own down comforter at bedtime, reliving that uncanny, delightful five minutes.

Life sometimes drops jeweled moments right in front of us, if we’re very, very lucky.

**More animal adventures can be found in my book, The View From Sunnybank, sold at Horizon Books in Traverse City. 

4/22/12: Catalogue Cunning 

Plant catalogues are fun to read and savor. BUT misunderstood plants, and some beautiful beasts, are within their pages. Wallets could be thinner - or gardens could be eaten alive - if gardeners don’t carefully interpret the text - and notice what’s NOT written. Here are a few examples.

Evergreens, catalogues state, ‘can grow three to four feet a year, thrive in Zones 5-8, and withstand extreme weather and temperatures.’  They don’t mention that the faster the trees grow, the weaker they tend to be, and that they need regular water the first year or two.

By the way, Zone 5 isn’t extreme. These word choices are a hint that the information may be - incomplete. Consequently, evergreens may become everbrown (Dead). It's an expensive loss.

Catalogues offer photos of CLEMatis, showing gorgeous flowers with long bloom times, but usually fail to mention that gardeners must wait three years. ‘It may be a little slow at first… is a favorite phrase, but bedazzled gardeners skim past these words and order eagerly, then rip the astonished plant out the second year because it looks dead in late spring. Alas - it’s been incredibly busy underground setting roots. I memorized this reminder: ‘The first year, Clematis sleeps; the second year it creeps; the third year - it leaps!’

Hydrangeas’ lush summer blooms emerge just when other plants are beginning to flag. But note! The first five letters are H-y-d-r-a. They need consistently damp soil and part-shade to be happy. (Hydrangeas were discovered under a waterfall.) Shallow-rooted, they dehydrate quickly. Catalogues glide by this, saying, for example, that they need ‘moist but well-drained soil’. I’ve learned to take every word literally. Moist - ALL the time.

Perennial grasses are showy in all seasons. Clumpers - grasses that stay where they’re planted - want full sun, reasonable water and well-drained soil.

But beware of ‘galloper-grasses,' which gobble up garden beds at a shocking rate. I’m passionate about my big, gorgeous blue Elymus grass, and won’t give it up, so I've jailed it. This rampant hunk lives in a bottomless Rubbermaid 30-liter trashcan, which I’ve completely buried. Even so, it sneaks out from time to time. Catalogues describe it as ’vigorous’ and ‘enthusiastic.’ Ohhhh, yeah.

The golden blades of Carex stricta ‘Bowles golden’ light up my shady areas, as does Hakonecloa aureola, a well-behaved Japanese forest grass, which lives quietly next to a hydrangea. Catalogues say - ‘prefers part shade.’ (Jeez! They should say, ‘needs mostly shade.’) Unwary buyers assume, reading ‘prefers,’ that it could handle part-sun. Nope.

They describe beautiful, perfumed Lily-of-the-valley (Convalaria) as ‘charming’ and ‘well-loved’ - quite true - but other sentences set off my 
alarm bells. ‘In the garden they spread diligently;’ (DING!) or, ‘Our large pips are guaranteed to bloom the first 
spring…’ (DING!) I snort with laughter when I read that they’re excellent for forcing. Eeeee! No one need force them; they’ll burrow into beds, and every other plant 
will be, ah, incorporated. (See? I can obfuscate, too.)

Once in, she’ll be there f.o.r.e.v.e.r.

Wisteria must be kept away from structures - houses, fences, garages. Provide a thick iron pole, sunk deep, for it to climb. Catalogues say: ‘Wisteria grows with almost overwhelming vigor’…(DING!) and - ‘Plants grow rapidly to 30 feet and completely bury any structure they are allowed to annex.’ (DING!) Note: they don’t say overrun and crush, but ‘annex.’ Hmmm. Slick.

If gardeners have the right spot, and are younger, they’ll love 
it. However, wisteria can take for-bloody-ever to bloom. ‘Wisteria is slow to flower...’  Try 8-10 years. It probably won’t bloom till you’re plant food 

Finally, there’s one really lovely ground cover that terrifies me. Aegopodium variegatum, better known as Bishop’s Weed, is described as a beautiful ‘carpet.’ Oh, yeah, it’s that. BUT! Forget zones. Aggie grows anywhere, and thickly covers
 everything with nary a burp. NEVERnevernever unleash it in a garden. The catalogue says… ’spreads 36 inches in 2 years.’ Uh-huh. Saying ‘inches’ somehow 
makes this information less alarming. But, imagine 3+ feet
 IN EVERY DIRECTION every year no matter what. They’ve warned you, but subtly. Oh, and by the way, NOTHING kills it. It simply pauses, coughs, and continues. Not even the Pope can stop it. Yet, it’s expensive! Why do gardeners pay big bucks for a plant that grows if you breathe on it? Or don’t?

So. I tiptoe through my catalogues' tulips and other pictured delights – but I’ve learned, from sad experience, to avoid its beautiful beasts.

4/15/12: Blankets for Shivering, or Overheated Babies 

It’s freezing out there! Alarmed by the icy nights I’ve purchased thin, inexpensive plastic painters’ sheeting to serve as garden blankets for emerging flowers and shrubs fooled by March’s exceptionally warm weather. Garden pins, dirt or small rocks keep them anchored in light breezes. Confused plants - especially fat-budded hydrangeas - really appreciate this consideration. I sleep better knowing I’ve done all I can. (Daffodils, grape hyacinths, tulips and suchlike, just laugh at temperature extremes.)

Days are warm enough for me to stain my new fence and think about mulch - the more permanent garden blankets - which I’ll probably lay in late May, when most perennials are up. I’ve chosen cocoa shells, as the price is much more reasonable these days.

Lordy, the stuff smells good! I put on weight just breathing it in.

Used correctly, it retains moisture. Weeds settling into it are easily dislodged. This natural by-product of the chocolate trade used to be discarded. Then some enterprising soul noticed it was brilliant as a garden blanket. Bang! A new industry was born.

I’ve tried many, many mulches; in fact, one summer I laid four different sorts – black shredded tires, three kinds of wood chips, pine needles and cocoa shells – as an experiment.

Though they all performed well, the first three kinds had to be collected every spring and discarded, as they’d faded, thinned or scattered. Cocoa mulch, which retains its rich chocolate color, is simply folded in – a huge time saver for me.

It’s tricky stuff, though, so I offer some hints for applying it intelligently.

Loosen the soil, remove weeds; then water deeply. Better yet, wait until just after a soaking rain. Apply it about two inches thick, without crowding plants’ stems – but never do this on a windy day. They’ll blow everywhere.

Next, water the shells with a soft mist to release a natural gum, which binds them into a porous mat. Note: about two weeks after application you may notice a harmless white mold within the mulch. Don’t worry: it’s a normal part of the decomposition process. Stir it around gently if you’re annoyed. (I’ve never bothered…)

Neighbor-noses will twitch appreciatively for about six days, but then it’s just mulch, minus the ‘yummmm.’ (Pets - especially dogs - will ignore it. Do keep them away until then, as some find it irresistible. Cocoa shells + pets = a fat vet bill.)

For those who dislike the cost- around $5.00 per 40-pound bag - try twice-ground wood chips, which produce a more finely textured product, offered in brown, red or pale colors. Whatever you choose is deeply appreciated by overheated flowers, including potted ones. (On a roasting day I enjoy feeling moist soil under any mulch’s protective blanket.)

Your garden will look really good, and so will you.

(By the way, some plants, like wildflowers and annual geraniums, prefer drier soil. Mulch can rot their roots.)

Another unexpected bonus: previously wormless beds are thick with them! I’m always astounded to see so many when I brush aside mulch to dig and plant. Just one squirmer recycles -(brace yourself)- over a ton of earth every year!

Next time you see a lowly worm on a wet sidewalk, rescue it, and think respectful thoughts.

A final chuckle: a foot-long garter snake clearly appreciates my brick garden walk. He’d used its rough texture to help him ease out of his old skin yesterday, leaving me the discarded, nearly transparent remains. But last night was freezing! The poor snake, shivering in his den as the new molt hardened, must have bemoaned our unpredictable weather!

Whew! Ready or not, everything’s growing!

4/8/12: Freaked Out! 

What a wild week in the garden! Roofers are re-shingling the porch roof and all the towers, and we’ve worked around each other pretty well. I duck under ladders and avoid flying roof junk, humming as I clean.

Then, on Wednesday, a mini-disaster.

I’d been prying out ten zillion maple tree helicopters and testosteroned weeds, and pruning clematis vines in the main secret garden. There’s a monstrous pile of debris in the alley, making it almost impossible to park the car out there. The garage’s interior is a mess, because the North Gate’s massive garden door is being tweaked. An electric sander, cords, stain, rags and massive hinges are scattered about, mingling with stacked bags of Wholly Cow poop, and suchlike.
Spring at Sunnybank is always like this.
Barely controlled chaos.

Well. I finally started trimming back the clematis in the front garden - and gasped. !!!Mites!!! were dining on the ten lovely columnar arborvites it climbed on. Awww! Garden-y disasters have an irritating tendency to happen while I’m making other plans. This was a major setback.

Spraying the few nits they’d had last year clearly hadn’t helped. I wailed my despair, oblivious to the stares of curious passersby.
If I didn’t adapt immediately, my established Clematis terniflora would have nothing to scramble along. It would complain, then sigh - and die in the dirt.

I stumped off to the garage. Les, a tall, dust-gray ghost, was poised over the saw-horsed door, sanding away eighteen years of grime. I finger-slashed my throat, the classic turn-it-off sign, and out came verbal diarrhea.

“I need more fence right now, today, immediately, because I have mites – a bad case, and they’re spreading – and the impatient clematis is already fifteen feet long and waving around looking for support and I can’t offer any so we need to go to Home Depot and get posts and dig holes - four, I think, for thirty-two feet of fence to build quickly – those mites weren’t supposed to return!!!”

Mites? Warily he stepped back, but looked closer. Uh-oh. I looked undone, with dry twiglets hanging from my rumpled jacket and hat-mussed hair. A saw-toothed weed dangled from my wedding ring. Clotted dirt clung to jeaned knees, and pruners hung from my back pocket. My face and gesticulating hands were a muddy study - Jeez. I presented the perfect portrait of an old hen freaking out.

“Whoa. Start over!”
Red-eyed, I explained again, more coherently.

“Lets have a look…
Yep. You do have Mites. Lots.”

A long, thoughtful silence settled in as we paced the front lawn pondering the problem from every angle. My mite-racked arbs sat there, not realizing they were history.

I ran inside for a pad and pencil. Design solutions went from wild to wildly creative, before moving toward clarity.

A board fence. Lower. Same simple lines.

Making ourselves visually acceptable we trundled off to Home Depot to think in situ and make more skeleton-sketches. From these we birthed a sturdy fence that wouldn’t make my wallet wail.

I rented their truck. $19.00 for one hour. Perfect. We loaded it with material and drove home. Unloaded. Returned the truck. Three hours later Les created that vital first panel, and stained it. While it dried he removed the first two eight-foot tall trees and dug the first posthole.

I coaxed the disgruntled clematis into clinging to a makeshift support for one more night. Tomorrow it’ll be seated in the sun atop a new fence section, ready to go nuts. And I’ll sigh with relief.

I stumbled into the kitchen about six o’clock, exhausted, full of splinters and rose thorns, and smeared with dirt. But my teeth gleamed. For now, problem solved.

Gardeners – and farmers – certainly lead precarious lives…