Tending a plot

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Backyard herbs in the summer.

By all accounts, I am a lazy gardener, but I relish the time for scheming that winter provides.

Gardening offers such rich mental pleasures. It opens a private world for planning and discovery. The plot itself becomes a little space for experimentation and redemption, yielding up the freedom to fail and fail grandly. I am already eager for spring, and my mind is filling up with inchoate plans for the front yard. My campaign to kill the lawn continues, if tediously, and I have grand designs for the plants to move and add to continue to colonize the grass.

Gardening has made me more comfortable with failure. We have failed, in many respects, this season. We didn’t clean up the monstrous overreach of our blackberries. We didn’t plant garlic in time, long a staple crop of our backyard. We didn’t support the enormous elderberry bushes very well, and we have no idea what to do with our three sickly apple trees. The yard is also a mess right now. After a busy summer and fall, the backyard looks more shabby than usual. But I feel uncharacteristically calm. Spring brings new life, unfilled time, the chance to start again.

Because this is the comfort of gardening: Gardening is never done. You’re never finished tending. There is no end in sight. And that is a deep, renewing joy.

. . .

Every fall, I forget about the tremendous joy I experience when I switch our bed from a quilt to our down comforter. The warmth and weight of the thing makes me feel a little less rage at the frigidity of the season.

. . .

two petals fall
and the shape of the peony
is wholly changed

– Shikibu

. . .

Thankful for

  • A week full of dinners with friends
  • An aging dog who still greets me with veritable leaps in the air
  • Yorkshire Gold tea
  • Cashmere sweater dresses
  • The linen tea towel of the Proust questionnaire that Guion bought me in Paris, which I’m finally using (life is too short to not use precious things)
  • Sugar maples
  • These Chelsea boots, to replace much-loved synthetic ones
  • Anne Lamott
  • Hair being finally long enough for a bun
  • The public library, always and forever

The young garden

Easter 2016
Just look at this blowsy camellia of mine.

April weather has been fickle, but I pull open the curtains every morning with pleasure and note how my front yard is coming back to life. I’ve been in a mood lately and studying English cottages and gardens with my typical fervor. I have such strong ambitions for my meager garden, and I feel like a failure more than half the time, but the context of English gardening has made me feel more relaxed. First, it is very loose and impressionistic. Gardens are simply packed with every conceivable flower and shrub, with little form or order imposed. Second, the English have been gardening for hundreds and hundreds of years. A refined plantsman in one of the books said his garden was so young; it was only 20 years old. This surprised and comforted me. I recall that my garden is four years old; it is but a mewling thing, inchoate and desperate to be tended. I have a long way to go until it feels finished, and I am happy about that. Because maybe a garden is never finished.

Next: To figure out how to persuade Guion to jack up our horrible concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. (I mean, I’ll help, but it’s such man’s work.) This project feels incredibly essential to me right now. I’m also hankering after a Virginia rose, but I can’t find one anywhere.

There is a very old tin of Burt’s Bees’ lemon butter cuticle cream at my desk; I use it infrequently. When my grandmother was alive, I’d give her this cream every year for Christmas. She’d clasp the little circular tin in her narrow fingers and say, “Oh, I have needed this! My cuticles get so dry!” She’d say this every year as she unwrapped it, even though she probably knew she was getting the same thing she got every year, and it pleased me. Whenever I use the stuff, the faint lemony scent makes me think of her, and I smile.

Now that I am 30, I have put childish ways behind me:

  • I am acclimatizing myself to being referred to as a “nice lady”; it is horrible beyond words to be called this.
  • I think I’m still in college, but then when I meet an actual college student, I think, Good grief, look at this infant.
  • I have to repeatedly Google the meanings of acronyms that my young colleague uses in Slack.
  • I want to be in my bed, skincare routine complete, by 10 every night.
  • I cannot fathom wearing a bikini in public. It now feels inappropriate, to show this much flesh in my old age.

Recently, in reading life:

I’ve fallen in love with Teju Cole, and I feel a particular bitterness toward my boss for loving him before I did, as if I have to lay claim to an author first, before anyone else recommended him to me, as if that mattered at all. If I heard that Teju Cole was speaking somewhere nearby, I’d probably travel an unconscionably long while just to hear him. I read the infinitely strange Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles, and I have been thinking about her ever since; I lent it to a colleague, and he gave me the slim volume of Paul Bowles’s Tangiers diary, and I am curious about what kind of marriage they must have had. I’m reading Spring, the latest little release from Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it charms me in all the predictable ways that he works on me. Specifically, he has this magic for making me ponder questions that I don’t encounter anywhere else. The one that has been haunting me lately is what is personality FOR? What is its function? I’ve been asking lots of people this question lately, and Grace M. gave the best answer I’ve heard yet: That human animals have personality because it makes society better; different personalities fulfill different roles, and so we have a collaborative, healthy, diverse community because of the multiplicity of temperaments.

I feel like I should surrender as a creative writer. I sat down to write a story recently, and was feeling into it, coasting along in this great groove, and then I stopped and re-read the character I thought had sprung from my fresh mind. I had just written an exact replica of Elio from Call Me By Your Name, down to the lounging on a mattress listening to classical music daydreaming about boys. What a hack! My brain is a thief. I give up.

Plants doing as they please

Garden in June
The outrageous coreopsis in the front yard.

Latest obsession, because I always have one: Native plants!

I just finished Nancy Lawson’s book The Humane Gardener and have felt the full error of my amateurish ways. I have planted a handful of native southeastern plants, mostly by accident, but I am so ready to focus on them and eschew the imported, exotic interlopers. (Gardening with native plants makes you sound really xenophobic really fast.)

There are so many plants that gardeners hold up as a standard of aesthetic beauty that are non-native and often invasive — and offer zero benefits to the insects, birds and mammals that cohabitate with us. I was also reminded, by Lawson, of how arbitrary the definition of a “weed” is. Unless it really is an invasive non-native plant, “weeds” generally serve useful purposes in your local ecosystem. I am more inclined to leave (some of) them, having been more informed of what “weeds” actually belong in Virginia (such as that wild violet that I keep ripping up).

I found Lawson’s book so heartening, because it made me realize that my little yard is actually my most powerful weapon against the grave tide of climate change. I can’t do anything about the Paris Accord. I can’t do anything to persuade China or the United States or India to reduce their carbon emissions. But I can garden for my native ecosystem, and in this way, boost a little bit of the earth that falls under my purview.

A few photos of the native plants that we have thus far:

Garden in June
Christmas fern (one of three).
Garden in June
Blossoms on our gigantic black elderberry.
Garden in June
Spiderwort.
Garden in June
Even more spiderwort.
Garden in June
Little bees on the coreopsis.
End of April
Baby oakleaf hydrangea. Can’t wait for it to get HUGE.

Natives planted but still growing: Purple coneflower, more spiderwort volunteers, pokeberry (which I previously ripped out but will now allow in select areas, having been informed of its usefulness to Virginia wildlife).

Next garden ambition: To turn the area that was formerly a chicken run in the backyard into a native wildflower mini-meadow, to attract lots of pollinators and let things grow a bit wild and unchecked.

All summer long, I am happiest when I am eating an unadvisedly large quantity of cherries.

“I write to find out what I think about something.” — Anne Carson, quoted in her Art of Poetry interview, Paris Review

The view from my window is a constant reminder

Front yard in July 2015
Daylilies in the front yard. July 2015.

“In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, in Windows on the World, by Matteo Pericoli

Mini-farm life

June Thunderstorm

Our weekends are hot and placid, and we spend most of our time tending to the garden in the early part of the day, before the daily afternoon thunderstorm rolls in. On Sunday, we harvested garlic. I wore my hat, which is fully intended to transform me into a replica of my mother. I think it’s working.

Garlic braiding

Guion deserves all the credit for this bountiful harvest. This is our second year growing garlic, and I’m increasingly convinced that it’s the best and most practical backyard crop.

June 2015 garlic harvest

The summer is lovely and peaceful, but I’m excited for a bit of reprieve with the much cooler temperatures in Reykjavik and the wild surrounding areas. Stories and photos to come.

June Thunderstorm

Thought in parables

Home and garden, May 2015

My front-yard landscape is filling out in a clumsy kind of way, but its advancements since last year are noteworthy. Almost everything survived the long winter, which made me supremely happy. And we harvested about five cherries from the cherry tree in front, which I also consider to be a success. The plants are happy and thus I am happy. It is a simple formula.

Home and garden, May 2015
Lamb’s ear gone wild.

One mistake was underestimating how crazy lamb’s ear is. It is taking over the tiny plot I naively stuck it in. It’s time to divide and conquer.

My generous, stylish friend Cate bought me this beautiful vintage pair of Italian loafers. She gave them to me as a surprise gift, wrapped up in brown paper, before we sat down to dinner with friends. I am totally in love with these shoes, even though they pinch my gangly toes. I wear them to work as often as I can, in the (vain) hope that they will stretch. They are so perfectly narrow and charming; they make my feet magically look like the feet of a Russian novel’s desirable heroine, who always has two sexy, sexy qualities: (1) “tiny feet” and (2) “a soft, downy upper lip.” Ladies with barely-there mustaches were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s jam. Mercifully, I haven’t achieved that yet. But the shoes, ah, the shoes, they are perfect.

We are going on a brief summer holiday to Iceland next week; photos to come!

Also, this dog wants you to come over and play with her.

Dog life in May 2015
Edith!

Favorite books from March

I read a lot of very enjoyable things in March. Particular favorites from the past month:

A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West. Utterly charming in every way! A delight for literature-loving gardeners.

Offshore

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald. My first introduction to Penelope Fitzgerald, and I found myself totally smitten by her. Continuing my newfound obsession, I am currently reading The Blue Flower, which I stumbled on at the library book sale.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum. I might just share a brain with her, for better or worse.

Electric Light: Poems

Electric Light, Seamus Heaney. The most delightful neologisms.

Between the Acts

Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf. This was the third time I’ve read this novel, Woolf’s last, and I was so pleased to discover that I enjoyed it just as much now as I did as an undergrad. I like how loose and playful it is. It is not her best, but Woolf’s “not best” is far superior to the majority of fiction. So. There’s that.

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast. Funny and heartrending in all the right ways.

All the King's Men

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren. This was on my to-read list for many years; it’s stirring and interesting, in ways that I didn’t expect.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems, Rita Dove. I also finally got around to the work of Rita Dove, one of my town’s resident famous poets. Deeply enjoyable. She has such an enchanting musicality to her work.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison. Borrowed from Celeste, my personal purveyor of good things to read. A well-written account of the author’s life with manic-depressive illness and its juxtaposition to her career as a psychologist.

Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino. Some people may find this plot-less collection of observations frustrating, but it is just the sort of thing that I love.

What did you read and enjoy in March?

The only golden ring time

Flowers from Angela
Flowers from Angela, circa 2012.

Oh, right. I already talked about Vita. But I still want to. If I ever wrote a nonfiction book, I’d want to write one like that — loose, unstructured, pretty little thoughts about a favorite topic, with the liberal dispensation of advice, such as this:

Gardening is largely a question of mixing one sort of plant with another sort of plant, and of seeing how they marry happily together; and if you see that they don’t marry happily, then you must hoick one of them out and be quite ruthless about it. That is the only way to garden; and that is why I advise every gardener to go round his garden now—and make notes of what he thinks he ought to remove and of what he wants to plant later on. The true gardener must be brutal, and imaginative for the future.

Inspired by A Joy of Gardening, when I got home from work last night, I pulled on my Hunters and walked around in the back garden with the chickens for a while, inspecting all of the plants that are slowly resurrecting themselves. I think one of our blueberry bushes didn’t survive the winter; we’ll need to get another little bush soon, so that the other two can have necessary company. The blackberry bushes, however, are thriving, and all three apple trees have started producing tiny buds on their glossy branches. The forsythia is just about to burst into yellow flame. I’ve heard that some high-class gardeners disdain forsythia, but I love it; it’s so fast-growing and hardy, and the fact that it produces that first shock of spring color will always endear me to it. I think I’d like to get a few more, to perhaps balance the yard out.

Newest additions (chickens)
One of our Japanese bantams. Might be Mayumi or Fumiko; it’s impossible to tell.

The hens have become very bold and chatty lately, especially whenever they see me. I won’t claim that chickens are the smartest winged creatures, but they are a lot brighter than people give them credit for. (You can, in fact, clicker train a chicken.) Our ladies have become much more interested in us, especially whenever they see us approaching the gate (because this means FOOD or OUTSIDE TIME TO SCRATCH UP ALL THE BEDS). They’re still quite skittish but noticeably less shy by degrees.

Last night, they were really getting into dust bathing. I’d read that chickens do this, but I’d never seen our hens partake in this particularly adorable and goofy-looking activity. At one point, one of the girls, in a little indentation she’d hollowed out for herself near the apple tree, flipped herself on her back and squirmed around while keeping her neck high, alert for danger. A hilarious, ungraceful posture, but she was having a grand time. The chicken instructional books I’d read said that chickens use dust baths to “clean themselves and socialize,” which delights me to no end. It’s the equivalent of a bunch of ladies taking a spa day together. Treat yo self, chickens. Treat yo self.

(*Title explanation: Whenever someone says something about spring, Guion and I cannot stop ourselves from putting on our best, bass-level Robert Pinsky voices and chanting, Springtime, springtime/the only golden ring time…)

The beginnings of revival

In a spontaneous decision, and in a rash of inspiration/desire to look like Marion Cotillard, I chopped off my hair. I donated a ponytail of rough-looking curls and got this, my shortest hair since I was six or seven years old:

BioI turn 27 next week, and I feel like it was time I had a grown-up haircut. We’ll see how it wears; at the moment, I feel very unlike myself and brimming with possibility.

Iris blooming
Irises at our old house. Circa April 2013.

My delightful husband, who knows me so well, found the perfect little book for me at the library’s annual book sale: A Joy of Gardening, by Vita Sackville-West (most known to me for being Virginia Woolf’s lover and the model for Orlando).

Vita Sackville-West in 1926. Public domain.

Sackville-West was apparently one of England’s most beloved gardening columnists, and this book is a free and lovely collection of her thoughts about gardening, tempering plants to the seasons, and favorite varieties. The edition Guion found me was printed in the United States in the early 1950s and has all of these beautiful woodcut illustrations of plants sprinkled throughout the brief chapters.

Her gardens at Sissinghurst Castle were renowned in England and are still prized today.

Gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. Via Wikimedia Commons.

She has a dazzling, dramatic style, characteristic of her Bloomsbury peers. For instance, some of her thoughts about irises:

There is a race of little irises, flowering in spring, and too seldom grown. They do not aspire to make a great splash; their colors are frail; they grow only to six to twelve inches high; they demand a small place to match their small size; they must be regarded as intimate flowers, to be peered into and protected from the vulgar slug.

I love it. The vulgar slug! It is just the kind of book I love: beautifully written, enthusiastic about a specific topic in such a way that you can’t help but be drawn in.

Iris blooming
Locust Avenue, April 2013.

My irises, which were given to me by a mystery benefactor, hail from Thomas Jefferson’s line of irises in his Monticello gardens. (The irises in these photos were from our last house, a rental that benefited from a landlord with an accomplished green thumb.) Here, at our new home, I planted my mystery-gift irises in the fall and watched over them tenderly throughout dark, cold seasons. They seem to have admirably survived the winter, and I am looking forward to their blooms; I haven’t the slightest idea what they might look like.

Lately

I am so eager for spring. I saw a photo of what our garden looked like last June and was nearly weeping with anticipation and desire. The sun dappling the barely fuzzed zucchini leaves! The warm earth! The gnats! The sweat beading your legs as you toil in the dirt! Today, I feel like spring will never come (we’re due for more snow this Thursday). But we spring the clocks forward this Sunday and that makes me feel the faintest stirrings of hope.

Tulips
Tulips, circa April 2013.

Today, to tempt myself in the 45 degrees, which now feels practically tropical, I stood out on the back porch in the sun, in my coat, and read Rita Dove on my lunch break. The dogs wrestled in the half-snow/half-mud slush. A blue jay dive-bombed into boughs of the giant spruce tree. I thought about Dove and her childhood, about her dancing with Fred, about her mystical economy of language.

My year-old orchid rebloomed over the weekend and I feel so VICTORIOUS about it. I want someone to congratulate me.

This past week, I was introduced to Penelope Fitzgerald, via her delightful and tiny novel Offshore, and I am going to call myself a fan. I am eager to read more. I was inspired by a recommendation from our lay preacher/the New Yorker‘s coverage of her recently published biography. Read her before? Any favorites?

Playful Edie
Eden in play stance; swipe of mud on the nose.

I am trying to love and understand Eden more. She is still a baby with a ton of energy, which is why she is often so annoying. She also just has one speed: RUNNING. I’ve never seen her walk anywhere. (Except for when you call her in from the backyard, where she is patiently waiting by the shed for someone to come out and play with her. Then she really drags her feet. She slowly, slowly tiptoes to the door, looking so terribly disappointed in life and in you, especially.) Remembering that all she wants is to play with someone is helpful in moderating my patience levels. Also, she is quite sweet when she wants to be. And she adores us. Last night, two episodes of House of Cards were watched with her little shepherd head in my lap. So that helps.