Spring Unfolding

Today marks the vernal equinox, and looking out at my garden, I’m eager to get outside and be a part of the day by getting my hands dirty.

The air over the past few days has been soft with warmth, spiced with the scents of new grass and turned earth, sweet with birdsong.

Nomadic harvest dress.
Artist: Nicole Dextras

My garden and I will be engaging in our usual dialogue, the one that starts when the snow melts and goes on until the snow starts falling again, usually some time in December.

It’s not a one-sided conversation; the garden talks more than I do, tells me what it wants or doesn’t want, and I try to come up with a witty or timely response. We don’t always speak the same language, and I know that’s my fault.

Cutting down a line of long grasses yesterday, I found the winter nest of some small mammal hidden beneath a particularly imposing clump. There was a thick ball of moss, leaves and grass that had been a home. I had just been telling myself that I should cut back these grasses in autumn for a tidier look; now I’ll be sure to leave them long as an invitation.

Artist: Nicole Dextras

I’d like to think I have some say in shaping the garden. Often enough, the garden laughs me off and does as it pleases. Mostly, the garden shapes me.

I wouldn’t call us friends, because I impose myself on the hospitality of this small space. I try to listen. I try to be companionable. I don’t always succeed.

I suppose that’s true for my life outside the garden, too. We are a work in progress.

Artist: Nicole Dextras

A Different Hourglass

I’ve been looking at images of Aboriginal Australian artists from Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum exhibition called Marking the Infinite, portraits of a sense of time and space outside our second and minute-marked world – and then I found this post in my drafts from a few weeks ago, the small echo of a sunny day.
“I went out to work in the garden for half an hour, planning to put in a row of spinach. Almost three hours later, I came back inside, unaware of how much time had passed as the warm autumn wind blew, birds called each to each, and clouds chased above.
How can time fly so unremarked?

Bush Plum (2013) Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Bush Plum (2013)
Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

I cleared a small bed of rose bushes that I’ve neglected for too long, freeing them from weeds growing fat on my inattention, eager brambles that disguise their thorns among those of the roses, sly grass encroaching from the lawn.

That done, I cut back the tall perennials, neglected for weeks with a distracted gardener. It’s an exercise in immediate gratification – I can liberate the plants and myself of past laziness, with visible results. Maybe that’s why the afternoon disappeared like the space between fingers tightening together around a narrow green stalk.

How often does life offer us such easy rewards?”
Syaw (Fishnet) (2015) Artist: Regina Pilawuk Wilson via hyperallergenic

Syaw (Fishnet) (2015)
Artist: Regina Pilawuk Wilson via hyperallergenic

Well, that spinach I planted got eaten by a roaming animal who refused to be put off by various barriers until I finally gave up, but whatever is was that liked the spinach didn’t care for lettuce, so I have a small crop of late salad greens.
This week, the garden will be put to bed for the winter. The fragile trees are already under wraps, the last herbs will be harvested for drying.
As the snow blankets the small patch of green, I’ll need to remind myself regularly of the weightless time of working in the garden.

Detail: Bush Plum (2013) Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Detail: Bush Plum (2013)
Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

The Marks We Leave Behind

Today’s first real post-winter foray into the garden reminds me that I’m a messy gardener. Late, as usual. But I’ve got a special packet of seeds to plant this week, and they’ve inspired me to be more attentive this year.

This is the effect of the person who sent me the seed packet, my guru of gardening, my aspirational green thumb.

Entrance to my friends' garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All photos: PKR

Entrance to my friends’ garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All garden photos were taken in Alaska.
All photos: PKR

I tackle gardening tasks in fits and starts, I spend hours one day until I’m sore, and then I won’t be back for a few days while I recover, even if the weather is ideal or the season quickly pressing on.

My drip irrigation system has been a work in progress for years, I plant up and tend and then I leave for a week and everything dies. I plant new things. It’s a fraught relationship. I’m still a beginner after twenty years.

Our garden was taken over from a French family that was abjectly devoted to the little square of territory (and I do mean little).

Before them, there was an English lady with a similar  passion. Before that, parts of the property were still taken up by the village stone oven (demolished to universal disapproval by the English owner to improve her view of the mountains beyond), the rest populated by number of fruit trees.IMG_1604

Our tiny corner of village has been worked and built and redone since the 15th century, when our house was first constructed.

Whenever I work the garden, I find evidence of what went before. No matter how many times I turn the soil, there’s always something new. Old coins, the outlines of the old oven, a long-buried heap of small animal bones. An old cooking pot, completely rusted through.

There’s been a recent story in the news about satellite images of a patch of land in Newfoundland, Canada. On a small peninsula that looks nothing more than windswept and wild, careful examination by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak revealed small and unusual variations  in vegetation patterns on the land.

 A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures. Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe

A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures.
Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe

Specifically, Parcak identified straight lines of certain kinds of vegetation that could be the result of buried ruins, ancient walls that alter the amount of moisture retained by surrounding soil and thus, the grasses that grow there.

An initial archeological dig has turned up promising evidence that this site at Point Rosee might just represent the second known Norse settlement in the New World.

All based on the way the grass grows, a thousand years after the settlement was abandoned.

Could the people of Point Rosee, assuming they really were Norse settlers, have ever dreamed in their wildest sagas that tufts of grass could indicate their presence after a millennium?

Back to those seeds I need to plant.IMG_1614

They were sent to me by one of the most gifted gardeners I know, a long-time friend who moved away over ten years ago. We became close friends here in France, then she returned to Alaska over a decade ago.

We don’t get to see much of each other these days. The ten-hour time difference makes phone call scheduling a challenge.

It would be easy to let this friendship wilt, easier than maintaining it over the distance and years. Far simpler to let it go its way and replant with a new one. But, for all the fits and starts, some relationships are worth it.

These are the relationships that leave deep marks, that alter the soil around hidden walls and make the vegetation grow differently.IMG_1633

The seeds – some of her favorites, she writes – will go into the garden. If I do my job right, I’ll get to spend time next to them as they grow over the season, and watch them blossom and bear fruit, and enjoy the close proximity.

And maybe, like many of the plants in our garden, they’ll keep coming back, year after year, a mark of our time here.

Secret signs of long distances in time and place that people have gone to live, to thrive, to make friends, to leave again.IMG_1619

Let It Grow

The garden lawn got its first seasonal trim yesterday, weeks after neighboring lawns around our place were abuzz with lawn mowers. Why do I wait so long and leave the lawn so untidy?

Over the past couple of years we redesigned the garden to use less water, so the green lawn area takes up much less space than it used to. The garden no longer a lawn dotted with flower beds, and is now a series of walkways with flower and vegetable beds, accented by a lawn.

Photo: PK Read

The grass cutttings.
Photo: PK Read

A large, lush lawn just uses too much water and is too product-intensive to make it a viable element for a lazy gardener and water miser like me. But laziness is only a small contributing factor to why the unruly lawn of winter and spring doesn’t get the flat-top treatment at the first possible opportunity.

In any case, our lawn is never golf-course perfect. Even mown, it’s a mess of green stuff and low flowers, all cut to the same length, with proper lawn grass in between. Fine by me.

I like seeing bees and other pollinators at work across the entire garden. At a time when many blossoms haven’t yet come out in full force, the various pollinators here are dependent on blossoming trees and small spring flowers. Our flowering lawn is alive with movement just above its surface.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

What a bee sees:
A dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) photographed with the light spectrum
visible to humans (left) and bees (right).
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Finally, I enjoy the way it looks. I like the bright carpet of small daisies, violets, sundry ‘weed’ blossoms and yes, even the giant dandelions (at least before they go to seed).

When it comes down to it, the lawn is left long because I like working in the garden and walking through ankle-deep flowers. I like being surrounded by the mad life of springtime.

I look out over the lawn, just mown yesterday, and see a scattering of flowers that escaped the blade and are raising their heads. Bees are harvesting pollen. The sun is shining. See you later – I’ll be out working in the garden.

Happy Earth Day 2015.

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden shed.photo 1-4


And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next door.photo 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy petal.photo 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the difference.photo 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Pot of Gold

We spent the week cutting thick bramble runners and digging out bramble roots with a pickaxe, raking and digging and smoothing the ground, enduring the amusement of neighbors who came by offering their supplies of Round-up herbicide.

Like any simple problem left unattended for too long, the bramble roots ran deep and the thorny vines fought their removal. Underneath one very large mass of vines, I found a decaying tree root that put up real resistance to the pickaxe. Why? Because embedded in the old tree root was a rusty pot. And all around the pot was the detritus of  home life that had been put here back in the 1940s or thereabouts.

A couple of crockery shards, some glass bits, a plastic-handled knife that is definitely from a more recent time, the old pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

This past week, I’ve been working on a corner of the garden that’s always been my bête noir, a ragged patch of annoyance.

Our small garden, not directly adjoining our house but opposite the driveway, was once the home of the village ovens. The stone ovens were taken down by the first foreign owner when she bought the house and its property back in the 1970s. But this little house and plot of land have been inhabited and worked since the 15th century.

The garden, when we moved in, had seen a few owners come and go since the ovens came down, and each gardener only added, they never took away. By the time we got here, there were corners that had been thoroughly overplanted and then neglected, hedges that had gone untrimmed, brambles that had multiplied unhindered. It was a glorious mess around the edges, which were encroaching on the tidy middle section.

The old garden.

The old garden.

We’ve been reluctant to do anything over the years because I liked the crazy romance of it all, but beating back the bramble jungle became too much. So over the past year, we’ve been streamlining. Those raspberry canes that were stunted and fumbling under a cherry tree grown too large? Gone. The nine flower beds (9!) that were choked with ground elder? Gone. The new raised beds that carry my signature gardening style of ‘Haphazard’ are easy to maintain and require less water. The pebbled path that runs the perimeter of the garden where the sun rarely shines is free of moss and weeds. The herb garden is a collection of pots and containers.DSC02240

But that one stretch of hedging that runs along the road, that part remained old garden. Thick brambles between five different hedge bushes, fronted on our side by a decorative veil of peonies and roses meant to distract from the other stuff. Sure, we could just dig the whole thing up and slap down a lawn.

What fun would that be?DSC02239

We used to think we might find a pot of gold in the garden, some buried treasure or at least an interesting cache of old jewelry or coins that someone in all the centuries of this land being gardened might have left behind. So far, it’s been mostly shards. I did once find a pre-WWI French centime, which I gave to a neighbor who had been born in that year, 1912.

Still, every time I come across the remnants of our predecessors, I have the sense that we are a part of something longer, something with a backwards and a forwards. An awareness that we’re the current bead in the pearl string of gardeners here, which is its own kind of treasure.DSC02244


Space Salad

Most science fiction notions of humans living in space, at least the ones that aren’t all white-walled and minimalistic, involve at least one image something like this:

Toroid Colony
Illustration: Don Davis via Discover Magazine

NASA announced that later this year, the International Space Station will, for the first time, practice space farming. Six heads of romaine lettuce, to be exact, grown in Kevlar pillow packs filled with something like kitty litter.

From the ISS web site: “The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation.”

So, something a little more modest. Like this:

Lettuce in Grow Bags Image: GardenGirlCT

Lettuce in Grow Bags
Image: GardenGirlCT

Success with lettuce (or lessons learned) could even lead to radishes, snap peas, and a strain of tomato bred for modest space (!) requirements.

I especially like that one of the benefits defined for space gardening, beyond the more sterile standards of ‘nutrition’ and ‘safe food source’ is the more ephemeral potential for ‘relaxation‘. Assuming, of course, that the astronauts doing the tending actually like to garden.

Even though the gardening will be done in a tiny enclosed living area with limited water and soil, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t yet count as urban gardening.