A VIEW FROM HERE, NOVEMBER: A SEASON OF GHOSTS - OF GARDENS AND GARDENERS PAST
Pomegranate Season meets Gifts from the Garden Season. Fresh pom jelly from friend Julie Nelson.
I was born in early November, very close to voting day here in the US. My birthday falls on Voting Day in regular year rotations, and as a young girl I thought all the fuss was for me - yay! But it's not. The fuss is about our Democracy, our rights, and values - so get out and vote if you haven't!
But, I was also born just days after the celebrations of All Hallows' Eve/Halloween, the Celtic Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' day.
A season in which it is said that the "veils between the worlds" are at their thinnest.
And in the garden it is so: All dying back, taking stock, tidying up, summing up. I cut back some of my taller herbaceous bloomers this week, great scratchy stands of brittle, prickly stems - the seed heads pretty well picked over by the back garden birds. Bringing closure to the summer garden and preparing for the "what's next" future is hinted at in the strong green basal buds to be seen at the base of several of the perennials being cut back - the Helenium, the Calamenthe - a duality which makes the thinning of the veil between past and future and other quite palpable to be sure.
Prep for the next cycle of the seasons of course depends on if you're moving into a fully dormant, cold winter, or a more mild Mediterranean winter growing season of hardy greens, citrus, and root vegetables, the likes of which I can grow in my own zone 9 garden. But mild-winter with hardy greens notwithstanding, the native cottonwood is singing its riffle song of winter-coming and dropping gold messages on the breeze daily, the native black oak, big leaf maple and willows, likewise, are lighting up the woodland and riparian corridors of slightly higher elevations.
Perhaps it's because it's the season of ancestors, people with ghosts of seasons' past, the liminal season of late-autumn and winter's "death" before spring's re-growth, or because it's the season of my birth, my own New Year - for me, this is the season my garden ghosts quite reliably come to keep me company while I work in the garden.
They are friendly - mostly - and I welcome them.
I've lived in 10 different homes and gardens in 2 countries, on 2 continents, and 5 US States - 5 different USDA gardening zones as an adult gardener, and in each, certain plants repeat over and over again: Fragrant pink 'Sarah Bernhardt' peonies, delicate spires of red and pink coral bells, and masses of spring narcissus for my mother, who died 20 years ago. Freshly dug potatoes also conjure up my mother with ease.
And lily-of-the valley. Hmmm. While my mother carried a generous bunch of these for her wedding bouquet, I grow these for my paternal grandmother who had gathered bunches of a very large flowered species (cultivar?) from a family home in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. This grandmother loved classical music, and she had an enormous patch of these transplanted lily-of-the-valley rooting out the french doors beside which her piano sat in the living room of her rambling old farmhouse in Concord, Massachusetts.
I grow nasturtiums and scabiosa for my paternal grandfather, who also loved gladiolas but for some reason these never stuck to me - at least not the kind he loved, my mother always referred to them as "funeral flowers", so that might have had an impact? This grandfather collected antique farm and garden tools, and I have a small, grinding stone, weathered and worn down unevenly, as well as a large wooden block-and tackle from his collection. Every move, these are carefully wrapped and pack and moved with me to be put in some position of honor in the new garden. In his final year, much of it bedridden, this grandfather would send us grandchildren out into the garden with his Polaroid camera to take photos of the trees and flowers in bloom to bring back to him to see. Flowering white and pink cherry trees, plums, and crabapples. He was so delighted with the magic of these photos.
For my maternal grandfather, I grow roses and camellias, and with judicious watering (once they are established they can withstand quite restrained watering in fact) they are happy enough in the heat of Northern California. This grandfather had polio as a boy and one leg was shorter than the other as a result, we were told, so he always had a slight swagger in his walk, and he smoked pleasantly pungent cigars. He was a horse trainer, polo player, a stock/stud manager/breeder and high level croquet player who immigrated to the U.S. from England before World War II. He'd grown up with few means and many siblings in rural England, and would tell us stories of wearing his mother's high heeled shoes to fool the local farmer when he and his brothers would go to steal potatoes of an evening. Can't believe the farmer was fooled, and hope their gleanings did not cause undue harm. This grandfather caringly tended a formal rose garden, and had a lovely collection of camellia, magnolia and box hedges in the South Carolina garden of his retirement and my childhood. I especially try for camellias as my mother grew and cherished them in her final garden as well. It's the simple-faced, elegant white ones that get me.
My maternal grandmother died when I was still fairly young and while I remember her, she did not imprint me with a plant for her. What I do recall is the deep, wide two story front porch of their big, old pink house in Camden, South Carolina - and in spring/summer it was draped in swags of fragrant purple wisteria, thrumming with bees as the adults drank sweet tea, or Bloody Mary's or Mint Juleps. So I loosely associate Wisteria with her, which is invasive here, so I love it from a far, as a memory.
And my aunts, some past, some living - their herbs, their flowers, their tools, their books, are all represented in the garden and on the garden library shelves. My great Aunt Oui (pronounced oo-ee, who lived in the Gladwyne, Pennsylvania house mentioned previously), is well represented in scented geraniums, the leaves of which she would have in finger bowls between courses at fancy dinners. Given the mild winter climate of my current garden, Aunt Oui might be slightly over-represented and I'm constantly cutting back my several scented geraniums throughout the garden, one of which keeps trying to envelope a St. Francis statue that I cherish from my step-mother and father. St. Francis has now traveled through 4 gardens with me.
Past loves - romantic and otherwise - men and dogs and women friends - wander through the season and garden in the form of the flowers or plants I was introduced to, discovered, grew and cut or cooked with in their company - their time of my life.
And my daughters, (both well and happy in the world, one a natural born flower arranger, the other a natural born digger/cultivator/pruner and herbalist) - the ghosts of their younger selves visit. Back in the day, when they were 5, 6, 7? I would give them each a set of clippers and they were allowed to go out into the garden to pick ONE (1) flower for each year old they were - they took it as a great treat. They could clip ANYTHING they wanted, which was tricky if I had a single prize bloom somewhere out there. These funny little girls sometimes wind their way around me in the garden - singing, playing in the mud, making garden clipping 'soup' and flower posies.
All these spirits pack up and move with me and my garden through life. They show up when they feel like it, or I feel like them (or catch a scent of them - like how you can glimpse a bit of spring in winter, or fall in summer), but this time of year especially is their season.
Sometimes my ghosts surprise me - sometimes them startle me - sometimes they bring on melancholy. Sometimes they comfort me. Sometimes I have to ask them, gently, to be quiet, so I can think. That's mostly my mother, who sometimes has a lot to say to me in that loving, protective way mother's have, though a grandfather can get loud out there, too. The aunties are always nice.
My garden holds them all - past, present, and future. The natural history of me.
Baby Rattlesnake (both dry bean and reptile) season. Butte County, CA.
This is a season in which we look back at the past - to acknowledge, to celebrate, to honor, to analyze and perhaps even to wonder: how, what, why? And maybe, again, why?
It's also - as we prepare our gardens for winter in whatever form that takes - a season of looking to the future - bulbs planted, seeds saved, preserves put up "for later," but as the leaves turn and fall - sometimes all in a rushing whoosh of drop and sometimes just one of two at a time very gently through the days; the flowering slows to little, then stillness , and then just the browns and winter greens. Dry twigs of past flowering stems fall over, bend over, begin their recession back into the ground without apparent complaint - the worms and microbes of the relatively warm soil welcome them home.
As my particular ghosts wander in and out and around, the garden, as ever, holds out one of its many lessons - with each perfect gold or burning red leaf dropped: that of letting go. And letting go again. Followed quickly by the lesson of - oh look at that leaf! - of being here. Of living in the layers as Stanley Kunitz wrote - of right now - with the past right there and future just ahead, but us and our gardens being firmly - right - here.
One good winter wind, killing frost, and cold-fingered morning turning the compost, and the seasonal/season of ghosts disperse. Like all seasons, (did you know that Japanese gardeners mark the beauty and passing of 72 seasons?) they're welcome back as exactly what they are - bridges and pathways (sometimes with sharp curves), threads as fine and strong as spider's silk connecting the past to the future, through the ever changing present day.
I've planted some new-to-me old varieties of narcissus this year. My ghosts could use some new company.
The leading edge of the Pacific Chorus Frog Season, Northern California.
Sustainability is one of those overused words in our world at the present time, and yet.....it became an overused word for a reason. Too many ways and means in every layer and aspect of our Western World are not sustainable. They cannot keep going on the way that they are going on.
One aspect of the mission of Cultivating Place is to energize gardeners to take on some of these unsustainabilities large or small through their gardening practices - from their personal well-being to different faces of well-being in the larger world.
And the straight up fact of the matter is that Cultivating Place needed to start developing avenues for its own sustainability, and I'm proud to say we are doing just that! If you would like to support the work of the program and the importance of these conversations, thank you for asking, here's how:
WAYS TO SUPPORT CULTIVATING PLACE
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On this first day of November, I'm proud to share with Cultivating Place listeners a wonderful partnership with Womanswork – makers of my favorite garden and work gloves - from buttery soft leather gloves, to everyday gloves, to virtually impenetrable leather gauntlets, and more great garden gear – Womanswork gloves work.
If you’re a gardener, I know the basket of mismatched, used-up old gloves you have in your garage, or shed or a basket somewhere. The have tattered dirty holes in the thumbs and forefingers – none lasted nearly as long as you wanted. Womanswork gloves last longer than any I have ever used – which is why I’ve used them and giving them to family and friends for the last 10 years.
In support of the Cultivating Place program bringing you stories like this week’s conversation with Leah Penniman and the important work of Soul Fire Farm – Womanswork is offering a 10% holiday discount for Cultivating Place listeners – and for every purchase made with the special code – WW10 - a you get 10% off AND a donation comes back to support Cultivating Place.
Order online now through December 3rd and use the promotion code “WW10” to receive your discount – for orders of $40 or more there’s free shipping in the lower 48 states. The motto at Womanswork is "Strong Women building a Gentle world," a motto I can get behind.
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LINKS TO OCTOBER 2018 CULTIVATING PLACE PROGRAMS
"Botanical Artistry of Artober Series"
10/4/18: Kate Blairstone and Mona Caron