Last weekend was the long Labor Day Weekend, when the calendar makes note of the end of the summer season. As is a tradition here in the District of Columbia, the remnants of a Gulf Coast hurricane (in this case, Isaac) barreled through late Saturday night to mark the occasion. Mind you, I was involved in a mutually-drunken phone conversation with my favorite sister-in-law, Dollie, during most of the storm. We gossiped about my brothers, our nieces, my other sisters-in-law, and everyone in between. Meanwhile, Isaac blew and rained and generally wreaked havoc.
He blew nearly as much hot air as Dollie and I did.
That damn Isaac was certainly no Southern gentleman. Like a bull in the buttercups, he left my garden tattered, positively downtrodden. Still, I was not unprepared for his wrath. This is an annual event. The day after, as I inspected the coleus which just twelve hours earlier had been three-foot-tall colorful flags unfurled in the breeze, but that morning were damp rags pounded to the ground where it appeared they would remain, I was reminded that this weekend is always the weekend when I begin thinking about shutting up shop on this year’s garden.
Like every aspect of my existence, and every transition phase in my life, it is with mixed but powerful emotions that I confront this change. Queen Gardener is, indeed, a fickle one, a reality that has caused me much grief in many situations.
The saying goes that for every door that closes, another opens. My problem is, I am never certain upon which door to focus my attention. While the Former Mr. Perfect and I were disentangling, and the Current Mr. Perfect and I were beginning the entwining process, I was at an utter and complete loss as to which door to take. Rather than moving toward one or the other, I stood for far too long between them, stranded and paralyzed. I was unable to make a choice.
This indecision is a theme that has repeated in various capacities throughout my life. I am always the one who stays too long in a miserable job because of my fear of jumping from the frying pan into the fire – not an ungrounded fear, as I have done exactly that on a few of the occasions when I mustered up the fortitude to actively participant in my own life’s major decisions. Fortunately, this has been quite infrequent as I have truly enjoyed a mostly random life, moving through it as the currents directed me. Even more fortunately, those serendipitous tides have seldom steered me wrong. They have, in fact, been very kind to me and conversely, some of the absolute worst outcomes of my life were the result of decisions which I have finally, painfully, proactively made.
I am known for focusing on the wrong door when I do, eventually, choose a door. I bang my stubborn forehead repeatedly against the door that has closed, and turn a blind eye to the one that has opened, sometimes missing it completely. I have very little positive experience with these cursed doors.
What, pray tell, does that say about me?
As to lying to rest my summer garden, it is with both a sense of sadness and a sigh of relief that I prepare for the task. I very clearly see the door closing, but I am ready for the long winter’s nap. And already I sense next year’s door opening. Overall, it is with a feeling of suspense that I approach this transition.
Here are gardening words to live by: breathe deeply and move forward. Appreciate the past, the closed door, for what it has provided. Anticipate the future, the open door, for its burgeoning potential. One door closes, another door opens.
I’ve had a very successful summer of gardening. I’ve minimized my losses and optimized the beauty of my daily life. I’ve enjoyed goods produced by my own hands, organic nourishment derived from no more than dirt and careful tending. But now this period draws to an end; this door closes.
The potted peach tree already looks tired, as if she is long overdue for her snow-capped sleep. And indeed she deserves it! In this, only her second year of production, root-bound and all, she managed to provide me with thirty beautiful, furred balls of nectar. Soon I must repot her, but not until she has lost her leaves and gone dormant, as otherwise I risk messing up her natural cycle. I will also avoid pruning her in this season, as already beneath her tattered leaves I see that next year’s fruit buds have developed . . . a new door opening.
Some gardening resources advocate pruning trees and shrubs in the fall; others proclaim that spring is the only time to undertake this necessary and frightening task. There is, indeed, much vociferous discord about when to prune blooming trees and shrubs. After trial and error, here’s my general rule of thumb on the subject: if the plant in question blooms after June 30, it is safe to prune in the fall. If it blooms prior to that date, it should be pruned only immediately after it has bloomed; otherwise you will simply be removing the bloom wood for the next year.
Roses, however, should always be pruned in the spring, as there is invariably some winter kill, often as much as half of the cane. Prune in the fall and one is often still forced to prune again by half in the spring. Best to just leave them be and see what remains come spring, and then take it from there.
One door closes. Soon enough the nights will begin to chill and the morning dew will incrementally get heavier, presaging the morning we will awaken to a hard frost, the whole of everything covered in brilliant white ice. That will be the end of whatever is left of the annuals: the zinnias, vincas, petunias and begonias, which have steadily been decreasing in volume of late, as steadily as I have been deadheading the spent portions. They will bow out, and will need to be clipped off at ground level and disposed of (oh, but were a compost bin available to me). Their demise will be without grief, though: who would want it any other way? It is the order of the world and all things in it: birth, life, death.
The coleus, too, will be no more after the first freeze. That frost will slam that door closed. Long before then, though, I will have snipped their bedraggled remains – thank you, Isaac, you blow-hard bastard – and arranged them in colorful vases to line the window in my office. There, like a botanical rainbow, they will root. Mid-winter, I will pot them up in some pretty containers where they will finish out the hard season. They will brighten my every work day until spring, when I move them back out to the garden.
A door opens, life is reborn.
The frost will spell the end of the basil, too. Or would, had I not had the foresight to hack it back to main stems just this past week as both the plants and I knew the end was nearing. They had stopped their profuse production of leaves and had even stopped struggling to bloom. As is, I now have a freezer full of basil pesto which will, over the winter, warm me almost as much as my summer garden has.
The hardier herbs, the perennials like the mint, oregano, thyme, and rosemary, also recognize that summer is ending. Their new growth is compacted and condensed, closer to ground or stem which means less exposure to the elements this winter. They are no one’s fools.
The parsley, which has also begun to produce a more condensed and rigid leaf stem, is right now in this transition season busily storing up sugars and starches in the form of swelling parsnips, which, as a biennial (growing in a two-year cycle) they would utilize next spring to fuel their flower and seed production . . . if I didn’t have plans for parsnip soup later this fall. A door opens.
Growing up on a sustenance farm in Wyoming, the line between the door closing and the door opening was blurred. There, the cycle of life, of opening and closing, was continuous and ever-present. Vegetable, animal, human: we all moved with a natural flow from season to season.
Putting the farm to rest come fall was no easy task, but the process also ensured that life didn’t meet its end when the cold moved in from Canada. We worked hard every day of this transition period. As we worked, the Southward-migrating geese flew overhead in a “V” pattern, sometimes so close that we could hear the wind rustle through their pinion feathers – a heart-quickening sound.
There, beneath the crisp blue autumn sky and the honking geese, we plucked every unripe tomato, pepper and eggplant left on the vine. We then sandwiched them between layers of newspaper and stored them in a house-adjacent lean-to shed, where they continued to ripen in the barely above-freezing temperature well onto Christmas. Apples and pears and plums were stored likewise. Potatoes and fennel, carrots and turnips, and even the last remains of beets and radishes had to be dug out and stored in wooden baskets in the same lean-to. Beans were dried, okra and peas canned, cucumbers pickled, corn shelled. Alfalfa was cut and dried and baled and stacked, oats were harvested and bagged and stored at the ready to carry the livestock through winter.
Corrals and chicken coops were cleaned out before the freeze, the valuable manure stacked on a dry, rocky hillside to cure for a few seasons before it was returned to the earth, its nutrients put to good use.
For many people, the approach of autumn means nothing more than pretty leaves and the chance to wear a new season’s fashion. For the gardener, fall is a reminder that doors close and doors open, that everything is apt to change and that life is both cyclic and permanent.
baby you know
i love you more than
warm biscuits and honey butter
i’ll be with you ‘til dirt turns to diamonds
so don’t get bent
when I say that today’s favorite fifteen
counted down while you were out getting diapers
i leaned over the ninth floor railing
smoked a joint beneath the tired winter sun
come on baby you know
you’re better than black beans with rice
and ham after eight long hours grinding for our room and board
but sometimes a man’s just got to step off and rest
sirens church bells brick
pigeon rustles on a ledge below me
you know I need you more
than a heart-shaped red velvet cake and
a big glass of milk but baby you know that what i
wanted was a quarter hour and a tight one
to be somewhere alone
*(this poem was previously published online at Boiling River Poetry Journal, 2010, and in The Smoking Book Blog, 2011).
I sometimes long for the good old times – those years when every summer I grew a forest of marijuana (Cannabis selections), then smoked it for the duration of the year (the smoking always followed by the eating of anything that wasn’t nailed down). But before you get your knickers in a knot, sister DEA spy, rest assured that Queen Gardener has given up on the production of his annual crop of “special fern” – as one friend who tended my garden during vacations used to refer to it.
I gave up this gardening tradition not because it is illegal and I, as well as my nearly perfect roommates, could be tossed in jail for it, although that is certainly a compelling reason. Almost as compelling is my XXX-rated porn fantasy of being locked away in male-only confinement with hundreds of other lonely, demanding men, their prison-yard muscles tearing out of their thin, orange coveralls and their handsome, criminal faces throwing suggestive glances my way.
Well, then. Perhaps I should start some seedlings right now.
The reason I no longer grow pot is because I so very rarely partake of it these days. My aged sinuses and asthmatic lungs can’t handle the smoke, and even though I could whip up some magic brownies or a thick ganja-laced hot chocolate, delightful when spiced with a bit of cinnamon and cayenne pepper, I really must abstain. You see, dear reader, in my dotage I naturally have enough trouble remembering details, connecting with those around me, and keeping myself motivated. I don’t need any further murkiness.
Therefore, despite the daily devotion to the herb that I maintained throughout most of my younger life, Queen Gardener nowadays usually (usually!) declines.
I smoked weed long before I drank alcohol. In small-town Wyoming, mid-century, it was simply easier to come by. Marijuana was everywhere; alcohol, one had to plan for. And it seems it may have been this way throughout history.
Archeological evidence points to civilizations smoking the devil’s weed as far back as the third millennium BC, as illustrated by charred Cannabis seeds found in an ancient burial site in present day Romania. In 2003, a leather basket filled with cannabis leaves and seeds was found buried with a 2800-year-old mummified shaman in Northwestern China. Cannabis is also known to have been used by the ancient Hindus of India and Nepal, referred to as ganjika in Sanskrit. Why, even smoking pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon contain traces of Cannabis.
I doth proclaim, if weed waseth good enough for Shakespeare, it certainly is fair thee well good enough for thine old Queen Gardener.
Cannabis is indigenous to Central and South Asia, and there are three recognized species (as well as many hybrids). The original species are: Cannabis sativa, the tallest at upwards of ten feet and also the most widely cultivated; Cannabis indica (called Indian Hemp), shorter and often cultivated for its more dense growth habit which results in more produce in less space with much less visibility; and Cannabis ruderalis, a wildling which is rarely cultivated for recreational use as it has the lowest level of THC (tetrahydrocannibinol, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana).
I would be far too embarrassed to divulge to you at what age I was first handed a joint. But I will tell you I was no more than fifteen when I set out to try my hand at growing weed. I attempted to germinate one of the seeds that had come along with my most recent pot purchase.
My gardening instinct started early and spread widely.
My teen-aged garden-prone friends in Wyoming sprouted their seeds in the warm, dark confines of their sock drawers, nestled between layers of moistened paper towels adjacent to the girlie (or in some cases, boylie) magazines. But I am always in favor of the most direct route: I plant my seeds in the dirt. To this day, an argument over the two sprouting methods rages, even though fewer and fewer home gardeners grow from seed. Marijuana is now decriminalized in some form in twenty-three different jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, and medicinal marijuana dispensaries are popping up like literal corner drugstores. To a grower’s joy, these outlets sell embryonic cloned hybrid plants with fantastical names like White Widow, Blue Dream, Bubblelicious, and Alaskan Thunderfuck.
Seeds are bypassed. Color me thunderfucked.
Still, I am old school. I grow from seed. I enjoy the sprouting; the watching as the tiny seedling hardens, matures, and produces. I appreciate the idea that my produce is following a natural cycle, is organic and home-grown. I stick by my seeds and I argue about which germination method is best. As does the other side.
“Not all the seeds sprout!” Freddie-of-Seattle fairly screeches. “By pre-germinating, I am certain not to be left with an empty space.”
No matter the method, pre-germination or direct planting, the seeds you use must be virile if they are to sprout. They should be green and meaty and healthy in appearance. They should not be grey in color and should not be shriveled. A simple test is to drop a couple of test seeds on a hot frying pan. If they pop like tiny firecrackers, they are probably good for planting purposes.
Pot seeds remind me of my years in Salt Lake City, where I cohabitated with the best roommate of my life. Miss Jane and I were perfect buddies, perfect roomies. At one point we agreed, as we always did on everything, that a pair of caged finches would be a lovely addition to our third-floor walk-up apartment. We hung their bamboo container in the west-facing sunroom and named the little birdie couple Peaches and Bailey. Trouble was, neither of us could bear caging them. We opened their door and allowed them free-flight of the suite, which they vastly enjoyed. It is indeed a special pleasure to watch one’s evening TV as a tiny bird whizzes by every few minutes. As creatures of habit, though, every night they returned to their little bamboo home to roost, and occasionally during the night Peaches laid a tiny egg, no bigger than a pearl. But they never truly nested.
We routinely treated them to marijuana seeds which they gobbled like popcorn. And then they commenced to singing, loudly and non-stop. I always thought Bailey sounded a bit like Woody Woodpecker, while Peaches did a solid back-up.
We were a lovely foursome until one day in a pot-inspired spate of murkiness, Peaches flew out the back window, never to return. Bailey died of heartbreak not long thereafter.
It was reefer madness, I swear.
For the germination stage of marijuana growth, if you use the paper towel method, you must carefully place the sprout in loose soil the moment it emerges from the seed shell. If you plant your seeds directly, always bury two or three seeds together as Freddie-of-Seattle is, indeed, correct: not all of the seeds will germinate. Plant them about a half-inch below surface, pointy end up. If more than one sprouts, pluck all but the strongest looking one.
And if you grow the super-potent dispensary hybrid clones, more power to you!
At fifteen, my soil-planted seed germinated. I kept the infant illegality in a coffee tin filled with garden dirt on my bedroom windowsill, hidden from sight behind the vibrant blue and gold curtains my mother had sewn for me.
As it turned out, it was not so well hidden. I came home from my play one day to find the seedling snipped off at ground level and lying chopped to bits atop the soil. Also carefully placed in the Folgers can was a brief note signed by my mother. “Try onions or tomatoes. Not this, not in my house. Love anyway, Mom.”
To this day I envision her fuming in her kitchen that afternoon after discovery of my secret garden, so angry she might have even been swearing (a rarity!), yet unwilling to involve my father or the law or to even risk alienating me.
In retrospect, this vignette is both poignant and typical of my mother’s great grace.
Should your seedlings survive your mother, keep them in as sunny a location as you can. Marijuana plants need an absolute minimum of five hours of sunlight per day (eight is better). Whether seeds or clones, you can plant in late April or early May, after the last frost of the year in your area.
The plants can become quite large, so if you are growing directly in the ground, space them about five feet apart. I typically grow mine in terra cotta pots which allows me to move them as I need (including hiding them in a shed or closet when unfriendly eyes come to visit).
Water thoroughly, but allow the soil to dry slightly between watering. Do not fertilize until the plants are established and have at least eight true leaves. Fertilize thereafter with caution (they are sensitive to over-fertilization).
When the babies are very young, they tend to be floppy and to have trouble holding their little heads high. It is advisable to stake them at this point to avoid breakage and to ensure an upright plant after she does harden, which she will when she enters her rapid growth period (the vegetative state).
I was nearly vegetative for most of my teen years, and in my state of perpetual pot-induced bliss, did some pretty stupid things. Like the time I left a full ounce of marijuana in a sandwich baggie in my car’s glove compartment . . . on the very day that my father had promised to replace my radio antennae, which required glove compartment access.
“It’s not mine,” I lied. To no avail, as he of course didn’t believe me and flushed the whole eight dollar bag down the toilet.
Eight dollars! Oh, as I said previously, how I sometimes pine for the good old (inexpensive) times. These days, marijuana, even the lowest-grade Mexican ditch weed, fetches far more than that. The World Drug Report published in 2008 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime claimed that a typical U.S. retail price for marijuana was $238-420 per ounce, depending on quality. This is a range that rings true to my experience and I am here to testify that prices have certainly not dropped since 2008.
The price increase may be a case of “you get what you pay for”, as research undertaken at the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project found that the average level of THC in samples of smoke available on the street increased from four percent in 1983 to almost ten percent in 2007.
But, still. Only eight dollars? And not that long ago!
These days, in the United States, Cannabis is the overall number four cash crop and is number one in many states including California, New York, and Florida. It is estimated that the illegal pot industry generates up to forty-five billion dollars in sales every year. This statistic leads the Queen Gardener to ponder why the Federal government doesn’t just decriminalize, regulate, and tax. Like alcohol, which in my humble opinion truly creates more of a societal problem than any number of stoners ever could. Stoners are, for the most part, bumbling and harmless. Meanwhile, the tax on forty-five billion dollars, plus the savings in reduced drug law enforcement, would pay for millions of school lunches and untold unemployment checks, not to mention the resultant boon to ice cream, potato chip, Astroglide and Reese’s Pieces sales.
I mention Astroglide because, quite frankly, there is nothing quite as scintillating as good, pot-fueled sex. As the kids say these days, “it’s da bomb.” Marijuana can relax the body, allow the racing mind to focus on what is at hand (no pun intended), and create a sense of isolation from the rest of the world. If you are lucky, that is. Sometimes, the opposite is the effect. Queen Gardener himself can no longer imbibe and indulge: If I do, I find my mind wandering in the middle of the act toward what it is I have left undone on my desk, whether or not I remembered to take the laundry out of the dryer, and, oh!, wasn’t that a funny stinger on Big Bang Theory earlier this evening?
As I said: in my dotage, I don’t need additional murkiness.
Sex, however, is very important to the proper cultivation of marijuana, for the plants come in both sexes and for an acceptable end product, you must limit your crop to female plants.
One summer I ended up with two male plants. “It can’t be that bad,” I thought to myself. Wrong. By September I had two robust six-foot plants that, unfortunately, produced little more than a daily dusting of yellow pollen all over everything in their vicinity.
As is the usual case with most things, the males are worthless.
Here’s how to sex your plant:
First, you will need a high quality, hand-held magnifier. Around the middle of July and onward, use said magnifier every few days to look for sex gland growth. The timeframe for reaching sexual maturity (the flowering stage) depends entirely on which species of marijuana you are growing and under what conditions. Hours of light vs. hours of darkness is a primary trigger, but sativa varieties mature later than indicas, and hybrids mature dependent upon their inherited percentage of each variety. Therefore, begin inspecting middle of July, when the flowering state is apt to begin, and continue until sexing is achieved.
Imagine yourself, if you will, crouched beneath an illegal plant, magnifier in hand, searching for sex organs while on lookout for roaming guards. Duck and cover and fondle, so to speak.
Oh, the memories.
In short order you will notice the sex glands developing. They appear at the base of the leaf stem, in the nook where it joins the main stem, and look something like a tiny (hence the magnifier) green sac. A female plant will grow one or two pistilla from the sac, pointed protuberances that, upon very close inspection, will reveal a covering of miniscule white hairs. The pistilla look something like tongues extending outward, their purpose being to catch the male’s pollen.
The male plants will develop balls (seriously) which hang below the sac.
Sounds easy, right? Tongue equals girl, balls equal boy. But I am here to tell you: it is not. It takes practice and more than a bit of time spent on one’s knees with a magnifier inspecting plant sex glands to finally see what is right before your eyes. However, rest assured, once you recognize the difference, you will never forget.
And then comes the hard part. If that baby that you have lovingly tended from a seed back in April to a sexual teenager in July turns out to be a male, there is nothing to be done but rip him up and discard. Just imagine yourself King Herod, ordering the execution of all the boy children. Or Sophie, making her choice, in reverse.
Approximately thirty to fifty percent of marijuana plants are male, so plan accordingly. If you intend to end up with two mature, bud-producing specimens, start with four. If you intend to have good smoke, rip up the boys. Even if you love them, even if you are obsessed with the idea of the plants comingling and producing offspring, my advice remains: rip up the boys. If a male is left intact and allowed to pollinate a girl, she will direct her energy toward seed development. Withhold a male’s pollen and she keeps striving and striving, producing more and more THC to make herself more and more attractive to the absent male (praise be that she is blind and cannot see that he does not exist). This frustrated female marijuana bud is called “sensemilla” (without seeds), and is one of the most sought-after pot products available.
After you rip up and discard the unfortunate males – you could play a somber dirge as you toss them to the compost heap, if that helps lessen your burden – the next step in the growing cycle is patience. As my pot-growing guru, Eric-in-Oakland, advised, “Patience is a virtue.”
Hmmm . . . this is probably not quite the same thing as my Grandmother Rose meant when she repeated this to me. In either case, it has been a life-long lesson, and one that I still struggle with.
I spent a portion of the Denver years cohabitating with the worst roommate ever. Evil Pam and I moved into a house in the western suburbs in early spring, and during the move-in walk-through with the new landlord, noted a ten-by-ten plot in a secluded corner of the backyard fairly brimming over with three-inch marijuana plants.
“I’ll mow those down,” the landlord said with what I detected to be a hint of baiting sadness.
Suffice it to say, after some delicate hemming and hawing and gentle reaching out of feelers, it was agreed upon that the plants would be left intact and, eventually, we would give him a portion of the produce.
Have you ever heard of such stupid tenants? We were to absorb all the risk, complete all of the work, and finally “be allowed” to provide the goods back up the chain of command.
What was that, the mimicking of a gulag work program in Russian Siberia?
No, it was just two young and dumb and totally mismatched roommates.
Those plants grew like, well, weeds. By mid-August, they stood two feet above the eight-foot privacy fence. And at least two feet above both my patience level and, jail fantasy or not, my capacity to remain calm in the face of my own escalated criminal activity. This wasn’t like I had just a couple of plants in terra cotta pots tucked away: this was a jungle, a ten-by-ten-by-ten cube of pure prosecutor’s delight.
One day, in a rare instance of roommate cohesiveness, Evil Pam and I had had it. In a fit of fear we hacked down the immature plants and hung them in the basement to dry. Imagine the manipulating landlord’s dismay when he received not a few baggies of potent and mind-altering bud, but a number of grocery bags stuffed with useless, dried, headache-producing leaves and twigs.
I’ve always blamed our eviction on Evil Pam’s herd of cats and their wayward toilet habits, but in retrospect I realize it may have been the result of our inept drug cultivation skills.
Patience is a virtue. This is the gospel according to Eric-of-Oakland. And it has proven to be the perfect truth. Eventually, if you just let her be, your Cannabis plant will begin to drop her large “shade” leaves and begin to form the buds – the much sought-after product. When you see them developing, it’s rather like watching that first tomato go from green thumbnail-sized infancy to full-on red lusciousness.
But patience continues to be a virtue long after the buds have developed. In order to end up with the very best product possible, you need to wait until the THC level is at its highest.
Bring out that magnifier, Gert, we ain’t done with it yet.
Once the buds have developed, you will need to inspect them on a daily basis. Under magnification, you will see that the buds and the very small leaves contained within are actually covered in tiny, white hair-like structures called trichomes. These are actually oil glands, and they produce the THC-laden resin, the purpose of which is to help trap the pollen.
You see now why we want no males in the vicinity? A horny spinster is much more desperate than a happily married young mother. Oh, but were it this easy to determine when a potential partner is receptive to advances. Imagine yourself again, at the local dance club, magnifier in hand . . .
As it ripens to its full potential, the droplets of resin that form on the trichomes and tiny leaves transmogrify from transparent goo to lovely amber-colored goo. When amber is reached, it is harvest time. Often the lower branches attain harvest potency before the upper branches, so it is important to observe a selection of buds from your plant.
Here in the District, prime harvest time (depending on the plant variety and what kind of summer we have had) comes around the end of September or the first week of October. If you live in a more Northern clime, it will be earlier (remember, light vs. dark, the “photoperiod”, is a key marker for your plant, and light vs. dark varies from North to South).
Oh, silly reader, we are not yet done.
Once the resin globules show amber, you must clip the bud from the plant, leaving an inch of two of the branch stem. Cut off any large leaves that remain, leaving only the flower bud and the tiny leaves it contains. Then you must hang your harvest by its vestigial stem in a dry, warm location where air can easily circulate around it. If you have an outbuilding, I would suggest using that. If, like me, you live in an eighth-floor condo, you might run a piece of strong across your bathroom or spare bedroom and cure the buds there. In these cases, you might also consider leaving the vent fan running to avert prying neighbor’s noses. You might be used to the smell, but they probably aren’t!
Eric-of-Oakland taught me that the harvested buds are ready for storage when they are dry(ish) to the touch but still have their gooey quality. His test? If it is dry enough to combust in his pipe (or vaporizer, water bong, joint, etc.), then it is ready for storage. He advocates sealing the product in a glass jar and placing it in the freezer. Sunlight and continued exposure to air, he tells me, degrades the potency. I have more than once had difficulty remembering my way home from Eric-of-Oakland’s, so I trust that he is an expert on maintaining potency.
However, should your freezer be unavailable – kids, roommate from hell, or just a need to have it stocked to the brim with emergency supplies – I find that sealing the buds in Ziploc sandwich bags and storing them in a dark drawer, cabinet, or closet works just as well. Remember, though, marijuana has a distinct and pungent odor and some sealing is required to avoid detection (should you need to avoid detection).
Now that you have that stash of free, organic product, let me roll us a joint, a skill I learned from a hairdresser (Marco-of-Salt-Lake-City). Apparently, it is exactly the same technique as turning hair on tiny rollers for a tight perm.
Let’s fire that thing up and see how you did. Inhale, hold, hold, hold, and exhale.
Whoa, man, where’s the fudge? And ice cream. With peanut butter. Are you going to have the rest of that jar of Nutella? Now, where did I leave those Oreos?
Hey, do you mind if I bring this bag of potato chips and this bottle of Astroglide to bed?
For the Queen Gardener, stumbling upon a thriving African Violet is a pulse-quickening experience, like the surprise of finding oneself in a room with a man so beautiful that one can only drool and covet. Like these too-beautiful men, African Violets usually pop up in the most unusual places and at the most unexpected times: in the waiting room of the dentist’s office, sparkling under the fluorescent lights at the local library, in your brown-thumbed mother’s living room, for Christ’s sake!
“Who is that,” you ask her with bated breath. It’s just a casual but insistent whisper of inquiry.
“My insurance agent,” she replies, adding sternly, “leave him alone.” She is quick to catch on, but you pay no mind. You are busy contemplating how many types of insurance you could possibly purchase and what you will name the inevitable wire-haired terrier after the oh-so-gay wedding. Err, I mean union.
May I suggest Violet, a lovely name for a dog that is guaranteed to be a dysfunctional child of divorce? No insurance against that. But I digress.
Be fooled not by these come-hither sightings of good cheer and visual distraction, for the African Violet is akin to that gorgeous hunk of man flesh in more ways than you might expect. Both are advertised as low-maintenance and carefree, but in reality they are fickle, demanding, and prone to pouting if they don’t get their way. But even worse, although both wither in the face of neglect, neither responds well to obsessive attention. They become downright ugly! A precarious balance is required to keep these ones happy.
I know that the persnickety African Violet and the unnaturally beautiful man are best idolized from afar. Leave them to their respective conservatories and greenhouses, to glossy spreads and sticky DVD’s, or to those random and senseless sightings in far-flung environs that seem engineered to upset one’s equilibrium. For it is far from the realm of possibility that we mere mortal gents can keep either an African Violet or a hunky boyfriend happy for any length of time.
Alas, although I know this intellectually, my heart and loins continue to betray me. I have been unable to resist. I want them; I deserve them. To this end I, and every other horny participant in the history of gay gardening and man-on-man love, undertake the valiant and all-consuming task of paying particular attention without seeming to be overbearing. We toe that thin line wavering between willful neglect and overzealous caretaking that is necessary to keep these charming specimens – the African Violet and the beautiful man – content.
They exhaust me, and I must give up on both. In my Garden of Good Sense, there can be no African Violet and there can be no man whose beauty overshadows his unworthiness.
But since this is a gardening how-to book, and I can sense your obsession from here, my advice on African Violets follows. You might try the same approach for the too-beautiful man, although I have to say I’ve had better luck with the Violets. I once kept one alive for six months, which is three months longer than I’ve ever been able to keep a too-beautiful man.
Keep your Violet pot-bound. Unlike most men, the Violet prefers to be contained. The Violet’s root system is shallow (as is the too-beautiful man’s), and you will want to keep the soil consistently moist but not soaked. Always water from the bottom (the same is true for some beautiful men, while others prefer being attended from the top. You’ll have to find out your too-beautiful man’s preference on your own. Oh, but what fun the discovery! Please send detailed notes. And photographs.)
Use a drainage tray beneath your violet that is a bit deeper than usual, and once a week (under normal household circumstances) pour ½ to 1 inch of room temperature water in the tray. Cold water will shock the roots and cause spots to form on the leaves. After ½ hour, drain any water that remains in the tray. Never – NEVER! – allow the pot to sit in the water for any longer. Never water from the top or otherwise get the crown (where the leaves come out of the soil) wet. If so, rest assured the entire plant will morph into mushy brown goo, from which there is no recovery.
Violets prefer filtered but bright east or west light, warm temperatures (71 – 85 °F), and high humidity. Fertilize with a weak solution every two weeks. Don’t over-fertilize or goo happens. Insufficient light will cause failure to flower, light too harsh will burn the leaves. Any variations from the norm can cause shock and death. To the violet, of course, not you, although in a drama queen moment following an angst-riddled too-beautiful man experience, I may have wished for death. But then that is a story best saved for another day.
My mandevilla vine (Mandevilla splendens) is stalking my peach tree. And like most stalkers, it will not be deterred. Every morning, I tenderly unravel the vines which overnight have magically traveled the distance to the lowest hanging peach branches and begun twisting their way upward. I push them back toward the trellis I have installed for their twining pleasure, but by first light of the next morning they have once again abandoned their intended perch and in darkness crept across the distance separating them from the peach tree (directly away from the trellis), to begin their skyward twirl. That plant has a mind and purpose which seems outside of my influence. It is a peach stalker.
I don’t quite understand stalking; I have never stalked anyone. Exacted revenge? Certainly. Once. And it came to no good end. I have nothing but regrets about that action. Regarding stalking, though, I am of the opinion that no matter the depth and strength of my obsession toward a love target, if he indicates that he is done with me then I choose to believe it is over. I so much prefer to withdraw and nurse my shattered self with some vodka (a bunch) and the sympathy of good friends. I can’t see myself violently pursuing a boy who doesn’t want me. That route is just too much of an embarrassment. But that’s just me.
Vines, however, stalk at will. They are headstrong, and one can never force them to do what one wants if what one wants is against their will. I’ve never been able to get a climbing rose (Rosa selections) to clamber, or ivy (Hedera selections) to cling to the wall I envision covered in soft green, or a clematis vine (Clematis selections), or mandevilla for that matter, to gather herself on a trellis and toss her flowered mantle to the breezes. I tried. I vainly tied, staked, nailed, stapled, wired. I employed the use of ladders, hammers, clippers, staplers, and a myriad of other equipment and supplies, but all to no avail. I was always left with a mandevilla twined in the peach tree or a clematis that had to be hacked back were I to enjoy my nightly TV “stories”, as it had weighed down the wire that brought the cable to the house (looking absolutely stunning the entire time) rather than embrace the hand-made trellis.
During some of my Denver years, I was a renter in a tidy little bungalow that included on the lovely grounds the single remnant of a long-ago disabled clothes line: one crucifix-like pipe stanchion, a six foot, rusted “T” at the far, sunny end of the side yard. I could have dug it out, but the whole thing was anchored in a huge mass of concrete. Had I chosen the digging-out route, I would have been left to deal with a massive rock attached to a metal cross, with no hope of the city accepting it at the municipal disposal facility. Best to just leave it be and adorn it as I could.
For the first few years I lived there, I dangled baskets of tuberous begonias off each end off the crossbar, to good effect. They were very pretty. But like all gardeners, if it isn’t permanent I get bored and start itching to try a new scheme. One early morning as I wandered home from some illicitness, taking the back alley route which led to the gate of my little back yard, I couldn’t help but notice a multitude of stunning blue morning glories (Ipomoea tric) covering the neighbor’s chain link fence to gorgeous effect. In the early morning sun, the vibrant yet soft blue was radiant and I knew I had to have some. That is when I came up with the brilliant idea of planting those same morning glories around the base of the upright pole and allowing the vines to grow along wires I affixed to the horizontal crossbar, extended downward at intervals to the base of the upright pole in a sort of inverted triangle. I envisioned a beautiful blue inverted triangle.
That is not what I got.
Those demented vines grew contrary to all rules, lateral and along the ground toward my own chain link fence, which by summer’s end they had covered with blue-hued glee. Those morning glories ignored my triangular plea and, instead, stalked the chain link fence. And there they flourished.
I have only been stalked once that I know of, during those same Denver years, when I was still too young to know better than to get myself entangled in a stalking situation. Oh, the whole affair of my stalking is such a torrid story – as embarrassing as being a stalker myself but perhaps evens a little more pathetic in that I was the victim, not the perpetrator.
Crazy Bill and I dated for five years, which for me in those days was an eternity. However, despite the relative endurance of that relationship, we never did cohabitate. The reason? He already cohabitated with another man (had for many years!); a wealthier and more established man who offered security but who, apparently, did not offer much in the line of sex.
Oh, dear reader, that is an area in which I had goods to offer.
In retrospect, I think I have misnamed my ex-boyfriend. Crazy Bill, hell; he should be called Lucky Bill, getting his bills paid and his (bleep) (bleeped) all at the same time. That was one scenario where being the man in the middle certainly paid off!
I am not proud of that period of my life, but I also don’t apologize. In today’s vernacular, it was what it was. I got what I needed at the time, Crazy Bill got what he needed, even Bill’s partner, I suppose, got what he needed in some way (perhaps just a boyfriend who no longer clamored for sex).
Eventually, though, I realized that there was no real long-term future for me with this married man. If I stayed, I was forever relegated to be the concubine, the “other”. So I broke it off, and that’s when all hell came undone.
Post-dumping, the first time I dragged a handsome and willing young man home from the dance club, Crazy Bill lurked not far behind, hiding in the night shadows of that same back alley as the morning glory fence, perhaps even hiding behind them. In the middle of my tryst with that boy, unable to inhibit his emotions, His Craziness slashed the tires on both of our cars.
That was an expensive piece of (bleep).
Later that week, Bill filled my mailbox with condoms – a lucky happenstance, I thought in my new singlehood, until a more rational friend pointed out that each of them might contain one single pinprick of revenge.
For the remaining two years I lived in Denver, until I got the wiser and moved in secret to Seattle, I got used to seeing him loitering in the background as I walked to work, as I enjoyed coffee with friends, as I basically did anything, anywhere. He was everywhere I was in Denver, until I chose not to be there any longer.
Vines are the Crazy Bills of the plant world. They decide where they will sneak and to what they will affix themselves, without permission or authority. And don’t think for a minute that you can just chop them back at will, for they come with indecipherable pruning rules.
Clematis, for example: according to the wisest and wittiest gardening book ever, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perényi, there are three groups of clematis. There are the Florida, blooming on old wood in the summer; the Patens, flowering on old wood in spring; and the Jackmanii, flowering on new wood in summer and autumn. And here is where we find the trouble. Have you ever seen a happy clematis vine? It is a jumble of stems, and there is nothing one would really even venture to call “wood”, a description that can be intelligently applied to trees or anything resembling them, but is unintelligible when applied to a tangle of wires twisting here and there and everywhere. Who could determine which is old and which is new? Like Eleanor, I don’t dare take my clippers to them, scraggly as they may become.
Should I cut back the peach-stalking mandevilla? How about the fig vine (Ficus pumila), bought on impulse back when I was obsessed with figs, which has attached itself to the south-facing brick wall of my balcony garden. It climbed the eight foot expanse and now threatens to crawl along the underside of the overhanging ceiling. That one affixes itself by virtue of holdfasts, one of the three methods that true vines use to climb. In this case, the fig vine uses tiny rootlets that penetrate the bricks and mortar to hoist its heart-shaped leaves skyward; other holdfast vines use adhesive discs, like some ivies. The other two methods that true vines use to affix themselves to whatever they choose as support are twining (like my mandevilla) either by main stem or leaf stems (like clematis), and tendrils, which are specialized stems that instinctively curl around whatever they contact (like grapes (Vitis specimens)). There are also plants we loosely refer to as vines that employ none of the above, rather, they lean against a support until the stem becomes sufficiently rigid to hold itself upright, such as tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) and climbing roses.
Vines do not lend themselves to pruning. They are wild creatures who roam at will. There is really no controlling them and, honestly, why would one want to? These days, I tend just to leave them alone and hope beyond hope that they will cooperate with my plans. But I don’t force them; I am afraid they will become even more headstrong in their growth pattern and seek revenge.
I am not much in favor of revenge. Except in the one previously-mentioned instance. That time, after a reasonable period had elapsed following the tire-slashing incident, say, enough time for a certain Queen Gardener to know that sufficient water had flowed under the bridge for focus and suspicion to diminish, I accidentally found myself in the darkened alley behind Crazy Bill’s house.
Why must stalking and/or revenge always involve a dark alley?
Next thing I knew all of the air had been let out of all four tires of his car. But no slashing; Queen Gardener doesn’t stalk around alleys in the dark with a knife! Oh, and there also may have also been one long, nasty retribution scratch the length of the driver’s side door.
Damn that felt good.
But therein we discover the trouble with the dish called revenge: it is prone to an irreversible backfiring, even when it is served cold as I had heard was best. By the time of my dark-alley action, Crazy Bill had indeed changed anger focus and, instead of aiming his considerable fury at the true keying and air-letting culprit, he struck back at an innocent chap who he’d been fighting with about some entirely different topic at the time. His Supreme Insanity wreaked misdirected havoc on that poor bystander. He destroyed the guy’s garden (Round-up sprayed widely), house (furniture tipped and heirloom china shattered) and car (wood varnish poured externally and internally). He even girded a century old pine in the fellow’s front yard that he, the innocent one, was especially fond of.
Lesson learned for me: revenge is a dish that should not to be served at any temperature. I never confessed to my acts (until now), but I did pinky-swear with myself never to lower to that muckity level again. I cannot be responsible for that kind of destruction.
Vines, however, have no problem with destruction. Google “vines” and you will immediately be enlightened as to their demonic power. There is a substantial amount of cyberspace occupied by vivid descriptions of the widespread damage being caused by vines. But here is the thing: the destructive ones tend to be introduced by human hands only to become invasive. Kudzo vine (Pueraria lobata) from Japan was introduced as a quick growing ground stabilizer for new highway construction sites, and is now overtaking and burying the forests in the US Southeast. Mile-a-Minute vine (Persicaria perfoliata) was accidentally introduced in this country when its seeds were included with holly seeds sent from Eastern Asia to a Christmas tree farm in York, Pennsylvania. With its perfect triangular leaves and stabbing thorns, she is at war with the Asiatic Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), also from East Asia and introduced for the lofty purpose of floral arrangements, to see who can most quickly overtake vast swaths of Massachusett’s forests. Both will eventually threaten the entire East Coast and Southern states. Why, even the beloved English Ivy (Hedera helix) is bringing stately old trees to their knees left and right across this country.
Not all destructive vines were introduced, however; some destroy in their native habitat and in the exact manner for which they evolved. Remember that fig vine presently attaching itself to my patio’s brick wall? It is also called Strangler Fig in temperate climes and is known to overtake and kill the most vibrant of rainforest trees.
The vines kill trees in various ways: they gird by compression, or they overgrow and block from the canopy the necessary sunlight. Sometimes they overpower the tree and crash it to the ground by sheer mass. Here in DC, ancient maples, oaks and elms have all met this demise. Blame the English Ivy.
Other vines stab long, nutrient-stealing roots into the very heart of the tree and slowly starve it to death. Some vines even work contrary to nature: rather than light, they seek darkness. The have evolved to send their long runners toward the heart of that darkness, like a crazy man in a back alley with a knife, for they intuitively understand that there in the darkness they will find a tree trunk which they can climb to the sun and, in a perverted case of delayed stalker gratification, overtake and kill that host.
Such is the story of stalking.
But the vine’s destructive nature is not limited to the natural world. They damage man-made structures by sheer will as well, crawling under and prying off clapboards, poking their persistent noses through tiny cracks, into windows and under foundations to see what hell they can play, deteriorating brick and mortar with their rootlets and adhesive disks.
Like all dedicated stalkers, the vines refuse to be stopped by either nature or man.
Still, I love the vines. As destructive as they can be in the wild, especially when introduced to their ideal environment with nary a natural restriction or enemy, vines in a planned garden are pure beauty (whether or not they follow my directions; although most likely they won’t).
I like wrestling with the vines. Of all the plants, they are the most visibly alive and vigorous. There is something extremely beautiful about a vine stretching into the unknown, searching for an anchor. It reminds me of my own, random life.
And those vines of the garden variety, when they prosper, are show-offs. They demand the spotlight. My variegated sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), which got a slow start due to shade earlier in the year, now both dangles and climbs in tender green and delicate pink in a full ten-foot cascade along my balcony railing. It fairly commands that those at street level pay attention to my eighth-floor garden. “Look,” it seems to yell to those below, “Look only at me!” And we do look; we admire the vines’ acrobatic feats, their delicate arches, their wandering ways, and their independent natures.
Vines know one of the truths of life and relationships: you can’t make someone love you – you can only stalk them and hope for the best.
Once in a while, some odd turn of American life takes one over and one has no choice but to address it. Such was the case this week. As I wrote this chapter, an all-encompassing on-line and live action debate swirled over and divided our great nation. I could not ignore it. The impetus? Chick-fil-A. Go figure; there’s something odd for you.
In a nutshell, the owner/COO, Dan Cathy, has gone public with his right wing, anti-gay ideals. He doesn’t believe in gay marriage, doesn’t believe in the rights of anyone to be/act/live gay. He says accepting the gay lifestyle is “inviting God’s judgment” and that gay marriage is “twisted”.
Did you know that in the Brazilian Portuguese language, the word cu, pronounced “coo” (as in COO), means asshole? Interesting tidbit there.
Chatty Cathy bases his belief on the word of the Bible, apparently forgetting that the book is an antique text that also calls for the sale of daughters into slavery and proscribes that a childless widow marry and bear children with the dead husband’s brother. Cu Cathy is certain of his one-dimensional opinions, and extremely self-indulgent in his private interpretation of the scriptures. He is harmfully selective in which scriptures he chooses to enforce. Apparently, if he indeed lends this much credence to the word of Leviticus (the book most often cited as God’s admonition against homosexuality), then he also must avoid non-finned seafood.
Drop that shrimp, Dano!
He also mustn’t wear cotton/polyester blends, plant anything with anything else, or trim the hair on the sides of his head or in his beard.
Really, the way he has fertilized this sprouted national debate is ridiculous. Unfortunately, he backs up all of that ridiculousness with millions of Chick-fil-A(hole) dollars which he donates to agencies and organizations that have the sole intent of defeating the “gay agenda”.
I certainly wish someone would FedEx me a copy of this agenda. As far as I know, the only gay agenda is our desire to live and to love, freely and openly, enjoying all the basic rights granted to everyone else. Period. End of agenda.
In my big gay opinion, Dan Cathy is simply a self-indulgent blankety-blank. Because I don’t appreciate his stated cultural restrictions, I will spend my allotment of fat-loaded, fast-food money elsewhere. That COO-hole has activated my big red angry button and will never get another $6.95 from me. I leave those flat little Chicken sandwiches to those flat-minded little Christian sheep who blindly follow, voicing support for Cathy’s “freedom of speech” even though that speech directly opposes the freedom of an entire group of people.
Ain’t that kind of Christian love a wondrous thing?
I can’t help but think of the number of young and tender lives the recent “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” must have negatively and irreversibly impacted. It apparently wasn’t enough for Cu Cathy and his flock that a teen-aged gay boy already had to hide his God-given sexuality for fear of the bully down the block or the gym class teacher who doesn’t understand the spectrum of human sexuality. No, for Cathy and the flock it wasn’t damaging enough that the gay boy already felt alone, isolated and abnormal. Now, thanks to “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day”, that boy has had the ultimate pleasure of watching a huge, ignorant swath of our country show up to declare their distaste for his sexuality, their distaste for his culture, and their distaste for him.
The whole Chick-fil-A spectacle smacks of overindulgence, from the spewing of rhetoric to the lining up to buy low-quality fast food to the smirking photos posted on Facebook by unenlightened everyday citizens and pseudo-celebrities. Won’t they be embarrassed in thirty years when their smug photos are still circulating, but in those changed times being used to illustrate how backwards certain facets of our society used to be?
Reminds me of my poor, silly mother, who I am sure is watching from her heaven, horrified. She was never anyone’s sheep, and certainly never advocated denying anyone any rights that she herself enjoyed. My lovely mother would have detested Mr. Cathy and his hate-filled mission. She would have proudly joined my personal boycott of Chick-fil-A. But that’s not why this nation-wide chicken-sandwich-and-waffle-fry vs. basic-human-rights debate reminds me of her. It’s the general Dan Cu Cathy overindulgence factor that brings her to mind.
One Sunday many years ago I phoned her, as I did every Sunday while she was still with us. At that time I lived eight long, lonely highway hours and three mountain ranges distant, and the weekly call was our primary method of checking in, of maintaining the love connection. Queen Gardener is a mother’s boy, for certain, and proud of it. Almost as proud as I was of my sweet country mother who, even though as Christian as can be, understood that the Bible was written during a different time in history and addressed a different culture’s difficulties. Take note, Mr. Cathy: my mother realized that your God did not make garbage, and told me as much.
But I digress (as usual).
Most often during our weekly chat neither of us had much of importance to report. It wasn’t like we were living extreme lives, me working on my third draft of the gay agenda and she thumping the Bible and everyone who didn’t agree with every word in it. We were everyday people with everyday lives and still we managed to laugh and giggle and gossip a little about the week’s events and whatever misdemeanor antics she or I or my brothers or her grandchildren were up to. We were a basic, loving, mother and son.
But this particular Sunday, not so much. Right away I understood that something was amiss. Drastically amiss. Her usually cheerful speech was slurred and she spoke in a slow monotone. She seemed grouchy, and she forgot what we were talking about half-way through what I just knew was a scintillating topic.
She’s drunk, I imagined with a tiny bit of glee, until I remembered that she rarely drank. And quite honestly, I’d never seen her drunk.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
Obviously, she wasn’t. Oh, the scary things that flitted through my mind: stroke, Alzheimer’s (to follow in her mother’s footsteps), aneurism, alien possession (she did live out in the country). Still, none of them were nearly as entertaining as imagining that she’d simply had too much fun with her bottle of peach schnapps.
“I have a cold,” she explained. She sneezed, as if to emphasize the point. “I drank some liquid cold medication, but it wasn’t working. So I took some cold pills.”
Then I understood. The silly old goose had accidentally overdosed herself, not realizing that both forms of the cold medication contained the same active ingredients. I gently encouraged her to go back to bed and then immediately called my brother. I demanded that he drive the seven miles from his home to her farmhouse post-haste and watch over her for the next twelve hours. I advised that he force liquids – water with lemon, hot herbal tea, clear broth – to help cleanse her system.
The next day when I called her, she was still sniffling, but had returned to her alert self. “I guess more is not always better,” she admitted.
Oh, how I wish Dan Cathy could appreciate that sentiment. He is, of course, entitled to his personal opinion. We all are. But he goes far, far beyond having a personal opinion. Every year, millions of dollars from Chick-Fil-A’s corporate profits are donated to Chick-Fil-A’s wholly-owned non-profit “charity,” the Winshape Foundation. In turn, Winshape donates millions to anti-gay organizations that work toward defeating or repealing same-sex marriage, or attempting to convince people that it is possible to “pray away the gay”, or just generally spreading lies and inciting hatred toward the LGBT community. But it gets worse; these groups hope to not only make an impact here in the homeland, where the gays at least enjoy some of the basic civil rights extended to all citizens by our constitution, but elsewhere. These organizations extol their particular brand of come-uppance on an international platform. For instance, Winshape annually donates to Family Research Council. In 2010, the Family Research Council spent $25,000 lobbying Congress not to condemn Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill.
I am not Christian, but still I pray to some higher power, perhaps simply to the idea of karma, that someday, someone Chatty Cathy loves will end up coming out as one of the gays. In my fantasy, he is forced to deal with the fact that we are everywhere. We exist. We are part of every family – including his – and unlike his beliefs, we cannot be prayed away. Or bought off. We deserve to exist and we deserve to love.
Such is my fantasy.
Years before my dear, Christian mother’s cold medicine overindulgence incident I lived in Salt Lake City: a new gay in a new city (living the relatively urban life for the first time). There were so many things I was unaware of. So many things to learn, such as the fact that so many people hated me/were afraid of me simply because I represented something they did not understand.
At the time, I worked for a Salt Lake County-operated mental health inpatient hospital. We admitted the worst of the worse, including those who had been “de-institutionalized” in the early 1970’s without adequate planning concerning where they would go or who would take care of them once they were booted out of the institution. Especially when they stopped taking their medication, as they all eventually did. When that happened, they most often ended up living on the street, dirty and crazy and un-medicated.
I am certain that Mr. Cathy would have no room for them in his ark, either.
These revolving-door patients were brought back to the hospital as needed, as though for a tune-up. In reality, they mostly required re-medication. Time and time again we cleaned up and stabilized the chronically schizophrenic and then, per the guidelines established in the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, sent them back out into the world for another cycle.
We were a second home to the long-time anorexics who returned to us knocking on death’s door with the boniest knuckles ever. About twice a year we stabilized the gorgeous bi-polar model who started to shoplift the minute she stopped her Lithium. One of our other regulars was the sweet grandmotherly compulsive hand washer who had scrubbed away several layers of skin from her reddened palms. And my personal favorite: the nondescript Mormon housewife who one day reached the limit of her repression and beaned her misogynistic husband with a claw hammer. Then she pushed his head into the toilet. Personally, I thought perhaps he deserved it, but, again, I digress.
I worked at this facility with a wide variety of mental health professionals, and we became an adopted family unit of sorts. I was the Ward Clerk, and as such not directly in charge of patient care, but I was occasionally called upon to help wrestle down an out-of-control patient so that he or she could be shot up with a big hypodermic full of a powerful sedative. My childhood training of defending myself against five older brothers came in handy during this, my Nurse Ratched period.
One of the social workers, a handsome, wild-haired woman named Carole, discovered cocaine. As a result, since we shared intimacies as easily as we shared lunch, we all discovered it. But no one dived as dramatically as Carole. She had always been just a tiny bit insecure, timid in both her personal life and professional life, and the cocaine initially gave her a stage presence that everyone appreciated. We all loved the new, outgoing Carole. Even her clinical skills improved. I remember one patient in particular who benefited from the chemically re-engineered, gregarious and powerful Carole.
Louise was an agoraphobic. She had been re-hospitalized for nearly a year so far during this stint of her hospitalization merry-go-round, and hadn’t yet been able to venture out of her assigned bedroom. One day Carole, in a cocaine-fueled spate of brilliance, talked this woman not only into leaving her room, but exiting the ward and enjoying a walk around the grounds. It might have been that Louise was finally just worn down: the cocaine certainly gave Carole a motor-mouth that just wouldn’t idle. Regardless, we all celebrated Louise’s re-emergence. We celebrated, but none as much as Carole who spent the remainder of that afternoon trekking back and forth to the ladies’ room.
Reminds me of that fabulous old cocaine-era disco song by Klymaxx: “I’ve got a meeting in the ladies’ room, be back real soon . . .”
But Carole didn’t come back real soon. She never came back; the coke got the better of her. Eventually she lost her husband and her children, her private practice, her house and her car. She lost her job at the county mental health inpatient unit. When I last heard of Carole, she was in a low-rent, county-run rehab facility somewhere in Nevada, probably being wrestled down by some country-bumpkin Ward Clerk so that she could be sedated.
Unlike my mother, Carole failed to realize that more is not always better.
As an aside, I want to make clear that I am by no means anti-drug. I came of age in the seventies. I smoked pot long before I drank alcohol, and I am a firm believer in the restorative and creative powers of limited recreational drug use. I’ve tried most of them at least once. Why, give me a Bloody Mary and a fat joint on any given Sunday morning and by nightfall I will have cleaned the house (spotless), edged the lawn (precise), and written something strange (and beautiful).
What I am anti- is, overindulgence.
More is not always better.
I was watching the gardening segment on my favorite morning news program the other day as the very handsome garden expert talked about the main problems home gardeners face. Immediately my gaydar kicked in.
“Fellow Queen Gardener!” the damn thing fairly screamed.
For many reasons. It might have been his tight pink polo shirt or his sexy, collagen-enhanced smile. Or the way he spoke with a slight lisp. It might have been the hipster haircut and glasses, or the fact that he seemed just too well put together to be outside digging in the dirt. But none of that mattered: what mattered was that he was, indeed, a very handsome garden expert, and that meant he bore listening to.
Come to find out, at least according to Mr. Very Handsome, the two most common mistakes home gardeners make are: 1) over watering; and, 2) over fertilizing.
Grrrr. My infatuation was beginning to fade. I hate it when the cute ones hit just a little too close to home. Why couldn’t he just be way-too-handsome and leave it at that? Why did he have to be smart and correct as well?
I took what he was saying personally. I imagined that he was pointing his well-manicured finger directly at me and tsk-tsking about my own overindulgent nature. In fact, I had to hang my head in shame, for those two errors – over watering and over fertilizing – are, indeed, my most persistent gardening blunders. I’ve killed more plants with too much water or too much fertilizer, or both, than most other people on this green Earth have ever even tried to grow.
That’s a sad, sad statement. But like most sad, sad statements, it’s also a true, true statement.
Mr. Very Handsome was attemping to enlighten his viewers about the same basic tenant I have been drilling into you, my dear reader: more is not always better. Although he was talking about water and fertilizer, he could very well have been talking about life in general. He might as well have just mentioned the overindulgent Cathy Cu and his misdirected Chick-fil-A dollars.
“More is not always better” holds true in almost all cases. Whether we are talking fertilizer, water, crystal methamphetamine, cocaine, vodka, sleep, sex – anything that in moderation can be helpful or enjoyable, when overdone, simply morphs into too much ugly. Overindulgence begets a hot mess in a hand basket, if I may poetically mix my metaphors.
Over doing “it” is a universal American propensity. We are all drawn toward more, more, more, when in reality, the only thing that comes to my mind that more of is better, is money. And that’s not a problem I have yet had to deal with.
Oh, but were I to have more money than I knew what to do with. If I did, Mr. Chatty Cathy would have a run-for-the-money counter-protest for his dollar-fueled hate mongering. As is, all I can do is withhold my personal $6.95 per Chick-fil-A lunch and ask that those who love me, or love the concept of basic human rights for all, do the same.
Fertilizer, water, alcohol, sex, cocaine, crystal methamphetamine, marijuana, cigarettes, sleep … in one way or another the overindulgence in one or all of these has impacted my life. Not that I have personally been overindulgent in all of them – just one or two or most or all of them for brief or extended periods of my life. But only once. Or maybe twice.
But here’s the thing about overindulgence: it’s not just the overindulgent one who is negatively impacted. The overindulgent one also harms the world around him, including those who love him and even those who only deal with him on a casual basis. Or as is the case with Mr. Cathy and his misguided spiritual overindulgence, causing harm to millions of perfect strangers. And I do mean perfect: nothing about their sexuality or their relationships needs to be altered.
I know what I speak of when I talk about the impact of overindulgence. I am the son and brother of alcoholics, the BFF of a former meth-head, the ex-partner of smokers and coke addicts and sex addicts, the co-worker of speed freaks and the chronically lazy and the food-obsessed. Heck, I’ve probably dated every addiction you can imagine. Overindulgence of any sort attracts me and scares me and confuses me. Yet I am as susceptible to over doing it as anyone, including my tendency to over-fertilize.
Fortunately, I have completed a twelve-step over-fertilization rehabilitation program which has been working of late, and my garden is all the happier and healthier because of it. I’ll go in to the twelve steps of the rehabilitation program later, but first, a little background information, such as why fertilizing can be important.
Basically, throwing around a little fertilizer of whatever kind you choose ensures that all the nutrients a plant needs are available to it. Most of us are not fortunate enough to live where the soil contains everything a plant needs. Potted plants in particular are deprived. Plants need nitrogen, phosphorous and other key minerals to grow, or they suffer, stunt, and wither. Like those anti-humane “family values” organizations might quickly go under if I didn’t get my wish, if Dan Cathy and his ilk continue to throw all that sandwich and waffle fry money their way. Alas, he does continue to use his Christian chicken money for that very purpose, and those organizations continue to prosper, just like plants lucky enough to receive timely and moderate applications of an appropriate fertilizer will prosper.
There are many kinds of fertilizer. First, there are organic- or chemical-based compounds. I am a proponent of the organic variety, although it is important to note that all fertilizers, whether of chemical or organic origin, are basically providing “chemicals” to the plant. There are slow release fertilizers, rapid release, water soluble, pellets to be raked into the soil, fertilizers that are applied via foliage application, etc. You can also use manure (more on that in a minute) or fertilizers made from plant materials (such as compost – more on that shortly, too).
Are you getting a sense of the fertilizer confusion issue? Hell, I am the one writing this and now even I am confused! Which makes me crave vodka. But only one; more is not always better. OK, maybe two. Two is not really more, is it? And if I make them strong enough, I might be able to lose count. Winky face.
If I lived back on the farm, I would have access to plenty of animal and chicken manure which is, in reality, an ideal fertilizer – once it has cured in the weather for a season or two. One must never apply uncured or wet manure to your plantings as its acids and salts are just too concentrated. In the case of uncured manure, more is definitely not better. In fact, none is best. If you mistakenly apply uncured manure, it will immediately burn your green babies – in the same way that when a dog pees on the lawn, a round, yellow dead spot appears in the grass.
Back on the farm, though, manure was a treasure. Twice a year…spring and fall…we donned boots and gloves and surgical masks to shovel out the cow barn and the Chicken coop. We piled the smelly, raw manure and straw and other truly organic materials on a dry, rocky knob behind the barnyard, where it would cure. That, my friend, was exhausting work, but the results were gardening gold.
When it had cured for at least six months but preferably a year, we used a specific piece of farm equipment called, appropriately enough, a manure spreader to distribute that farming gold over the alfalfa fields, the pasture, and the two-acre garden plot.
Oh, man, what I wouldn’t do for some chicken shit these days. Just a touch would do me. However, as ideal as cured manure is as an organic and complete fertilizer, I am fairly certain that the upscale neighbors in my in-city condominium community would vociferously object to my spreading any feces, cured or uncured, on my balcony. I am as certain that I would be heavily fined and/or evicted. There you have the reason for my fertilizer of choice: organically-derived, water-soluble, and nasally-acceptable. And organically-certified. It is in granular form, tinted blue, but those little plant happy-drugs originated from 100% organic sources.
I would trade my left (insert body part here) for a compost pile or bin. Compost is the number one very best soil conditioner known to man. A healthy topping of compost can take the place of many, many fertilizer applications. But, again, it is a matter of space. Although, honestly, if you are lucky enough to have a tiny bit of leftover space, say a corner under a tree that doesn’t lend itself to garden plantings, a simple chicken wire and four-by-four compost cage can certainly go miles toward amending any soil issues you are dealing with. And provide somewhere to dispose of those pesky lawn clippings and fall leaves and all those other garden and vegetable kitchen wastes. Given a liberal application of compost every spring, most gardens require much less, if any, additional fertilizer. A compost cage is truly is a gardener’s luxury, but alas, one afforded only to those who have space. I live a cramped life, so I rely on other means.
Most water-soluble fertilizers like the one I use can be applied directly to the foliage, bypassing the root absorption process. This works very well on ground-planted gardens or herbaceous borders, and is much easier than applying the water-soluble fertilizer by hand one-by-one to the roots of each individual plant. One simply screws on a special garden hose attachment and then sprays everyone down with the fertilizer solution. However, because I grow my garden in various pots and containers, I can’t use this method. For potted plants, foliar application can significantly increase the likelihood of fungal, mold and mildew infections. There’s just something inherently different about plant life in a pot and plant life in the ground.
It is similar to the difference between Cu Cathy’s Christian outlook and my dear, sweet, forgiving mother’s Christian outlook. Go figure.
My advice to you is very straightforward: Step number one of my previously-mentioned twelve-step over-fertilization rehabilitation program is to follow to the letter the instructions that come printed on the container of whatever fertilizer you choose to use. T.O.-T.H.E.-L.E.T.T.E.R. Do not deviate. If the directions say stand on your head and clap the soles of your feet together to the tune of “We’ve Got the Beat” by that fantastic and inimitable group The Go-Go’s, while simultaneously spraying the fertilizer mix from your pursed lips in ten-second intervals, do it. Do not question. Do it. That is the rule number one.
While reading that label for those instructions (or, perhaps, some instructions that are a bit more simple), you will undoubtedly note that there is a series of three numbers. Something like 27-3-3, 6-12-0, 8-8-8, 4-3-3. These numbers mean something, and that something is important.
Those numbers are the product’s “grade”. They refer to the specific percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (potash) contained in that specific fertilizer product. For example, should your fertilizer label numbers be 8-8-8, that means that the fertilizer contains eight percent nitrogen (N), eight percent phosphorus (P), and eight percent potassium/potash(K). This is by weight. So, more simply, one hundred pounds of an 8-8-8 fertilizer contains eight pounds each of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium/potash.
You could research to find what fertilizer grade is recommended for each specific plant specimen you are growing. And then buy twelve or thirty different fertilizer grades. Or, you could do as I do and find a generally appropriate fertilizer and use it on all of your leafed babies. My preferred fertilizer is graded 24-8-16. For my potted plant garden, I apply via roots twice a month during the active growing season, exactly as the instructions indicate, and exactly at the strength the instructions indicate. Rule number one . . .
So far, so good; only eleven more rules to go.
Is it an American trait to want everything to be bigger, better, more perfect? More fertilized? We are, after all, a nation grounded in excess. We overindulge in everything. We are also a divided nation, and whichever self-indulgent side of the divide we stand on, we stick to our guns. Here in the good old USA, my side is the right side. Always. Just ask Mr. Chatty Cu Cathy.
In reality, there are other more moderate and humane options. John Lennon once said, “We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.”
John Lennon said a mouthful there.
You see, problems arise when one loses sight of when too much is simply too much. It’s very easy to think more is better. I’m certain that his holiness Dan Cathy believes he is nurturing the betterment of society when he indirectly advocates for the killing of the Ugandan gays. Like many individuals whose approach to right and wrong and nurturing have been perverted by rigorous and narrow-minded Christian training, Mr. Cathy has lost sight of the consequences of his actions. While entitled to his beliefs, he has forgotten that he has no right to inflict them on the rest of us. Or use them to cause harm.
I am here to argue: more is not always better, whether that be more hatred or more fertilizer. Or drugs. Or religion. Or guns. Or whatever else you may believe in. Here in America, we have never developed an understanding of moderation. And in my humble, personal opinion, moderation is nurturing. In this great country, we over fertilize, over advocate, over preach, and give too much money, always one-hundred-and-ten-percent convinced that our side of the argument is the right side and that what we are doing is the right thing. We fail to realize that a little of a personal opinion is fine and appropriate, but putting too much stock in it is, frankly, too damn much. Forcing your opinion can and will negatively impact others.
But, alas, back to the tangible issue of fertilizer application and what happens when, Cathy-like, you overindulge.
First, recant and apologize. Then . . .
An over-application of fertilizer kills plants by effectively “burning” them. Similar to the dog pee I mentioned previously, and similar to how the sensitive gay youth may feel burnt after having been subjected to the self-indulgent Facebook photos of the “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” participants.
The plant system absorbs an overabundance of soluble salts; the gay youth absorbs an overabundance of ill-will. The salts in the fertilizer cause the plant’s roots to shrivel and water absorption slows. The salt in the ill-will causes the gay youth to further withdraw. The plant’s roots eventually stop working; the plant dehydrates. The isolated child’s feelings of unworthiness skyrocket. Both burn. The plant dies, the gay youth kills himself.
It is important to note that when parents disapprove of a gay child’s sexual orientation, that youth is eight times more likely to kill himself than a non-gay youth. Think about that for one moment, and imagine what seeing his parents’ proud Facebook photo posting of their Chick-fil-A appreciation might instill in a gay child.
Some signs that you may have been over-fertilizing your plants are an excessive amount of leaves or foliage but few flowers, fruits, or other procreative materials. Leaves will begin to yellow around the tips and then look like they have, indeed, been burnt. Some plants more susceptible to chemical imbalance, such as basil or zinnias, may just wilt and wither and then frost over with fungus, appearing as though they have been overtaken by something akin to athlete’s foot.
Some signs that a young gay person may be over-demoralized are withdrawal, a sleep disturbance, lack of interest in activities that the youth was previously interested in, weight changes and eating disorders, demonstration of feelings of worthlessness and guilt such as cutting one’s self or belittling one’s self, crying, irritability. All are such pleasant symptoms, and end oh-so-horribly eight times more often than they do for just the average depressed teen-ager.
Back to gardening, with a confession: I have led you a tiny bit astray. I advertised a twelve-step over fertilization rehabilitation program. That was just to keep you reading. The truth of the matter is, my twelve-step over fertilization rehabilitation program can be reduced. Steps one through ten are: DO EXACTLY AS THE INSTRUCTIONS SPECIFY.
It’s that easy.
However, should you find that in a moment of vodka- or pot- or, what the hell, cocaine-inspired frivolity you have exhibited a blatant disregard for the instructions and over fertilized some poor little green friend, reducing her to a gelatinous mass of white-down-covered foliage, there is hope.
Over-fertilized, potted plants can be saved. You’ll basically have to force the extra fertilizer out by slowly flushing the soil with lots of water. Sort of like my dear, departed mother and her accidental overdose. Then you’ll need to cut off the burned or damaged leaves since they can’t be revived. Finally, you will replant the thing in a new pot with fresh soil and then, after she is established, begin fertilizing according to directions.
For a ground-planted specimen that has been over-fertilized, flush once with a heavy watering and then allow her soil to completely dry before watering again. Remove burned or damaged leaves and withhold fertilizer. Once the plant recovers, if she recovers, begin fertilizing according to directions.
ACCORDING TO DIRECTIONS.
Rule eleven of my twelve-step program concerns the love contained in the world: it is, indeed, like a delicate plant. You must nourish it, taking care to admire and appreciate everyone’s unique possibilities. You must not lose sight of yourself or of the consequences of your actions. You must not become over-arrogant in what you believe. Don’t over indulge. And if you should encounter a gay or lesbian youth who is destroyed by the messages he or she receives daily from people like Mr. Cu-hole Cathy and his ilk, hug that child, tell him that he is perfect as he is and that someday, not so far in the future, he will be in charge of his own destiny. Things will, indeed, get better. Nourish that child like you might nourish a seedling planted with love; give him hope and encouragement and the things he needs to grow.
And lesson twelve? Don’t eat at Chick-fil-A. Hate never made anything grow; repression never nourished a thing. Besides, I hear their chicken comes from an asshole.
No, my gardening friends of a certain age, I am not talking about putting on a tie-dyed tee shirt and following that group of lyrical geniuses about the country in an LSD-induced haze. In this context, deadheading refers to the removal of spent flowers from your annuals and perennials. I also include the removal of dead leaves and unattractive growth in my deadheading efforts. Think of it as good grooming, intended to keep your garden beautiful in the same way that proper hygiene keeps you beautiful. We all know the importance of looking our best!
Picture it: one of the former Mr. Perfects and I stroll along, perhaps on our way to a happy-hour cocktail. The heat of summer intoxicates and the gays feel wicked. The two of us notice a shirtless specimen walking toward us, say, one-and-one-half blocks ahead.
“Damn,” I say, “who dat? He is fi-i-i-ine.”
But as he approaches I realize that something is amiss. His golden locks, so loose and flowing from afar, are matted. They appear not to have been washed this week. They certainly haven’t been cut this year. And it worsens. His torso is covered with splotches of sprouting hair, indeterminate in length and color. And those muscle cuts so defined from way back there? They have become jiggling bulges and rolls.
It is essential for self-preservation at this point that I loudly declare “take backs”. I mustn’t linger, though. “Take backs” are overridden if that former Mr. Perfect were to notice the receding illusion of beauty before I do, and interject with “no take backs.” Then I am simply stuck with the horror and humiliation of bad grooming admiration. Dirty nails and all.
You don’t want that for your garden, do you? In much the same way that a haircut can put a whole new shine on your day, or turn that budding troll back into a baby doll, deadheading your garden will lift its sagging morale. Gardens need grooming, too.
Spent flowers and leaves are ugly. Period. But if that isn’t motivation enough for you, this detritus not only provides a cozy little habitat for insects, fungus, and other unhealthy organisms (think crab lice, yellow toenails, and scabies on the poorly-groomed man), but removal of the seed-producing part of the plant ensures that it will keep blooming. Just like the lesbian neighbor’s biological clock: as long as she doesn’t have that baby, that clock takes a licking and keeps right on ticking. But give her a baby and the urge diminishes. She is satisfied.
Your marigolds and petunias work in the same way. Let an annual set seed and she is soon done for the season. Her goal in life is continuation of the species and her own internal clock ticks steadily toward seed production. Allow that process to reach completion and she retreats. But remove the spent flowers and her hormones surge. She will produce new blooms.
Deadheading is not rocket science, and any twit with half a brain can ascertain what should go and what should stay. But my little twit, if you have forgotten your half-brain today, just look at your plants; note where the new growth emerges. Then be certain not to cut off that part. But don’t be too cautious, either. Just like grooming yourself, deadheading involves inspecting closely and harshly and then acting accordingly. Most importantly, grooming your garden is no time to coddle your sentimentality. If it’s yellow, dingy, faded, overgrown or leggy, spent, frayed, or spotted, get rid of it. You can pinch or you can carry garden scissors, whichever suits you. And don’t just remove dead and damaged leaves and petal-less flowers: reshape and prune overgrown plants and for goodness sake get rid of any plants that have died.
If you are less than a half-brained twit and really can’t figure out how to trim that plant, look it up on the internet (my apologies to all those who are less than half-brained twits; I mean no disrespect, but please refrain from deadheading anything. In fact, avoid sharp objects). Ask your local nurseryman. Ask a gardening friend. The information is out there.
There are some generalizations that you can safely follow. When clipping spent flowers, you are usually safe to make the cut just above the first true leaf on the main stem, which is where new growth and subsequent flower buds will originate. For roses, this traditionally means just above the first five-leaf set. For annuals, it generally means removal of the entire flower bud and stem at the point it branches from the main plant stem. If the blooms emerge from a central stem (think hollyhocks or gladiolas) then pluck each spent flower from the stalk and leave the unopened buds alone. Once the stalk has finished blooming cut it off just above the basal growth (the mound at ground level). If the plant is a bloom-covered heap (picture dianthus) wait until there are more seed pods than blooms or fresh buds, and then “mow” with shears. The plant may look straggly for a short time but it will recover and most likely bloom again. The ornamental grasses should not be deadheaded until early spring, at which point you may cut old growth to ground level in preparation for the new year’s growth.
One final note: when deadheading species that traditionally reseed themselves (bachelor’s buttons, hollyhocks, cosmos, etc.), it is important that you allow sufficient seeds to mature for the next year’s growth.
‘Nuff said. Now get to work. And wax that back while you’re at it.
Domestic Bantam Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus); Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus); European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris); House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus); American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis ); Barn Owl (Tyto alba).
I love birds. I also hate birds. And therein you catch the gist of my fickle life. I have a similarly convoluted love/hate relationship with most things in my life: with men, school, writing, work, summer, cars, winter, men, sports, dancing. And men. Did I mention men? I love and hate them the most.
This fickleness took root long, long ago.
Flash back (way back) to one un-Godly cold winter during the dark ages on the farm in Wyoming. We all suffered, but it was the livestock that suffered the most. Sure, my little boy fingers and toes got cold, maybe even numb, when I was sent outside to complete my winter chores – glorious tasks like chopping a hole in the foot-thick ice of the water trough so the horses could have a drink. But at least I had a warm house to retreat to when my work was done. The livestock? Not so much. Barns on a poor, mid-century family farm were unheated.
My unofficial definition of un-Godly cold is when the thermometer doesn’t budge above minus ten ˚F for at least two weeks. Such was the case that particular winter. That arctic blast was enough to send anyone and anything to that dangerous dreamland called hypothermia. That cold wreaked havoc across the farm, laid a frozen bony hand on everything in its path. The cattle and horses shivered through, visibly miserable and coated in hoarfrost, but surviving. The large animals were fairly amazing in that respect.
It was our small flock of barnyard chickens that were truly traumatized. They were not bright enough to find ways to keep warm. They might have burrowed into straw like the rabbits, or slept crisscrossed and stacked together in a pile, harvesting each other’s body heat like the pigs, or even snuggled up next to a resting cow like the sheep. But the chickens, with their pea-sized brains, didn’t do any of these. They instinctively and habitually roosted in solitary slumber on the top of stall walls and among the rafters of the barn, suspended in the midnight air where they were particularly susceptible to the extreme elements.
One brown bantam hen that was no bigger than a softball was forever altered during that winter of our discontent. The poor thing’s exposed feet froze solidly. When the cold snap finally broke and her little toes thawed, they simply fell off. She was left with two stubs, the scaly chopsticks of her lower legs which, minus her feet, were entirely useless for walking.
Despite the objections of my father, who I believe saw chicken soup on the menu, I nursed the little hen back to health. Mobility proved to be difficult, but she was a fighter. Over the course of the following spring and summer, with practice and repetition, her wing muscles strengthened and eventually she was able to fly for short distances – no small feat for a domestic chicken; they are typically flightless.
When this little hen with the big heart wanted to go somewhere to handle her pressing chicken business, she would begin flopping along the ground on those two stubs, flapping her wings madly until finally she became airborne. Her takeoffs reminded me of the National Geographic movies where the tiny propeller plane deep in the Alaskan interior bounces along the rough terrain until it eventually catches its wind and lifts off, veering left into the sunset. The hen, though, had no flight control. Veering in any direction was a problem. Once airborne, the struggling creature would do her best to steer but the results were mostly catastrophic. She lived a random life, for certain, most often ending up catch-as-catch-can wherever the winds deposited her.
Another problem for the little-hen-that-could was that she had no landing gear. Every flight ended in a tumble, an ass-end-over-teakettle roll. We appropriately began to refer to her as the Cannonball, and the name stuck. After every tumultuous landing, Cannonball would smooth her ruffled feathers and pretend that she had landed gracefully, exactly where she intended to land, and then go about some made-up-on-the-spot chicken business.
That little hen was hell-bent on overcoming any disability the un-God handed her. She was an inspiration to all of us and we grew increasingly enamored of her as time went by. We adored her tenacity and, indeed, she became a slight celebrity in our small farming community. She had her photo published in the Basin Republican Rustler (front page!) and she even won a ribbon at the Big Horn County Fair, a sort of Miss Congeniality award for the sweet, disabled hen.
Isn’t bird love grand? Now comes the hate part.
While Cannonball was living the spotlighted life of a feathered starlet, her more pedestrian foot-enabled sisters and brothers were systematically and thoroughly uprooting and eating every single seedling from my garden. Carrots, radishes, corn, squash, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra: all plucked in infancy, row by row.
At that point, it was my turn to see chicken soup on the menu.
I loved that little bantam hen, but for an entire summer I hated the rest of that garden-gobbling flock. And for the remainder of my life, it is as though I have been precariously balanced on a karmic bird teeter-totter. For every good bird, there has been an evil bird. For every good bird deed, there has been an equal and opposite evil bird deed. But it’s not limited to birds. This love/hate, good/bad dichotomy extends to all aspects of my life. For every good boss, there has been a moron with a mean streak. For every task that comes easily and gives pleasure, there has been something tortuous and painful that must be finished. For every good man, there has been a self-centered jerk (most of whom I have referred to as “boyfriend” at one time or another).
Years after the days of Cannonball, far too many years for me to comfortably divulge, I randomly ended up in California’s Bay Area when the former Mr. Perfect was transferred there for work. I alighted in the suburbs on the “other side” of the Oakland Hills, an ass-end-over-teakettle landing rather like the little hen – she and I both lived a life wherein we were primarily deposited by the winds of fate. Still, I quite liked the location despite a slowly deteriorating relationship. My life was off-center, but my garden was beautiful.
While living in Northern California, I had to have a sinus surgery. No, Honey…not from all the cocaine I’d done. I wish. I think I wish, anyway – it certainly would make for a more dramatic story. Alas, my surgery was to cut out polyps – nasty pendulous sinus growths that must be removed by scalpel every seven or eight years. If you want to continue breathing, that is. I chose to continue breathing.
Here’s where I found myself post surgery: reduced to mouth-breathing as my hacked-up nasal passages were stuffed with cotton packing and God only knows what else, although whatever it was did feel hard and plastic, like maybe a child’s toy had accidentally gotten stuck in there. Dr. Handsome had ordered me to avoid lying prone for danger of 1) suffocating; 2) hemorrhaging and bleeding to death. Thus, I spent the week immediately after the slice-and-dice propped upright amongst pillows in an overstuffed brown leather armchair in the living room – twenty-four hours a day. The former Mr. Perfect deposited me there to fend for myself as he proceeded to go about his business – elsewhere. For me, it was shaping up to be the loneliest week of my life, my only companions being a stubborn pain and the pocketful of narcotics I had been handed at hospital checkout. On that first afternoon of living alone in the lounge chair, in my perfectly delirious narcotic daze, I began to hallucinate a flickering in the back patio lemon tree, visible through the living room window. Flicker, flicker, flicker. Blame the narcotics, but it was more than a few hours before I realized it was not me being delusional; there really was something flickering.
I forced myself to pay attention through the delicious narcotic high which fairly begged me to avoid reality and simply return to dreamy, dreamy sleepyville. Say what you will, but I refuse to apologize for loving that high. I earned it. In my acute state of sinus misery, narcotics were the very best buddy a Queen Gardener could have asked for. Still, I pushed them aside long enough to investigate what the infernal flickering was about. As the dope haze lifted, I realized it was a wildly painted orange and green Rufous hummingbird building her nest on a low-hanging branch of the lemon tree.
I named her Ruby.
Hummingbirds, I learned, weave their nest, tiny as a child’s teacup, out of small bits of plant matter, like moss and lichens and seed down and the tiniest flakes of bark and fluff, all stitched together with strands of spider’s web. That’s right, spider’s web. Stunning.
It took Ruby a few days to complete her nursery, during which she flickered back and forth, back and forth, adding this and that and then a tiny bit more of this. It was a slow process and I was half-way through my narcotic prescription before she had finished her masterpiece, the colorful baby crib securely tethered to a twig just beneath a large lemon leaf that later served as a rain umbrella and sun shade. Ruby knew what she was doing.
Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was just that I desperately wanted to feel less alone in my life. For whatever reason, that little bird became a source of light in those, my darkest hours. She was a tiny, pulsating beacon of positive energy. She emanated a pure, natural love and sense of purpose that flowed through me and sustained me as I recuperated. Writing this now, I realize that I come across a bit like a crazy old Queen Birder, but I honestly believe that I might have fallen into a significant narcotic and loneliness fueled depression had Ruby not kept me entertained with her lively, light energy.
Two days after she finished construction, there were two eggs. Fifteen days later, there were two naked baby hummingbirds that looked something like large, clumsy ants wiggling in the bottom of the nest. Three weeks later, the babies fledged. I, too, flew back to my normal and increasingly dysfunctional life, breathing restored. Also restored, though, was a basic faith in the healing power of nature. To this day, when faced with a dark moment, I try to remember Ruby sewing her beautiful nest and always when I do, things feel lighter. Wherever you are, Ruby, I love you and I thank you.
Not all nesting birds are as gracious or as giving.
In the first years of my District of Columbia inhabitation, before the distance between us grew irreconcilable, the former Mr. Perfect and I shared a miniscule second story loft condo in a turn-of-the-century brownstone. It was a cute, albeit tiny, historically significant home that included an upper-level step-out balcony, just enough space for me to be able to affirm that, indeed, I had a garden.
A male European starling chose to claim a nest site beneath a loose ceramic roof tile just above this tiny balcony. At first, I found it romantic, the way Mr. Starling perched on the corner of the pressed metal decorative railing and did his clown-like starling dance to attract potential Mrs. Starlings. So cute. I giggled as I watched him from behind a drawn blind, like a backwards Peeping Tom who peered out rather than in. I was happy for him when the one true Mrs. Starling showed up, and together they began building a nest. Happy, I was, until those little black monsters proceeded to tear every leaf off a baby orange tree, uprooted my Mexican sunflower seedlings, and pinched my baby marijuana plants off at ground level. What were these, DEA birds? My opinion of them was quickly souring.
Still, I thought, we are all co-inhabitants here on Planet Earth, and it is my duty to try to live with the newlyweds. I covered the replacement plant babies with chicken wire, but those lovebirds were as tenacious as the legless but determined Cannonball. They would not take no for an answer, going so far as to wrestle off the chicken wire in order to pinch off the second planting of sunflowers and marijuana seedlings.
My admiration for them was quickly morphing into something ugly, a process that replicates in my life with alarming frequency. With men as well as birds, history has proven me fickle. Sort of like those damn starlings, it is most often the very quality that attracts me to a man that ends up being the issue I finally hate the most about him: the infamous straw that breaks the camel’s back. Like a former Mr. Perfect who at first thrilled me with his silent independence. Later, it would come to feel like willful, ignoring negligence. Fickle, fickle me.
I won’t go into detail about the eventual disposition of Mr. and Mrs. Starling, those feathered fiends who had the nerve to repeatedly damage my plantings. Let it suffice for me to say that they were dealt with and in the new, starling-free world, my tiny balcony garden flourished. The orange tree and Mexican sunflowers and marijuana and I were all better off without them. But true to my fickle form, my bad experience with the pair of them doesn’t mean I always and automatically detest starlings. Far from it.
One of the most beautiful sights in the natural world is a starling murmuration, which occurs with regularity in the autumn months across the wide-open spaces of my Wyoming youth. Even though the starlings are year-round residents and do not migrate south for the winter, in the colder months they gather in huge flocks (perhaps to huddle together during the un-Godly cold spells). Come late afternoon, as the autumn sunset approaches, the flocks take to the air, twisting and turning like one living organism, painting a surreal image of suspended reality. It is a beautiful sight and not one easily forgotten. The magnificent swirling patterns of a murmuration mirror the unavoidable patterns of the cosmos. It is a fickle flush of feathers against a clear blue sky.
Birds can add to your gardening experience, or they can ruin it. You can love them, or you can hate them. One thing is for certain: if you have a garden, you will have birds. They may be there to help you, hauling away beak-loads of aphids or caterpillars or other harmful pests to feed a nest of hungry hatchlings. Or they may be there, as hummingbirds are, to pollinate your crop. Or your birds may be feathered demon spawn, showing up just in time to steal your blackberries, to swipe your carefully-laid seeds, to maliciously snip off your infant marijuana plants with scissor-sharp bills. Or, simply to shit with surprisingly good aim and a perverse sense of humor on your freshly washed car (a particular bane to my friend Carl).
You may invite them. Despite my whining and crying, I have never had a garden without a birdhouse. Earlier this spring, my bird condo was visited several days in a row by a charming pair of red-headed house finches. I kept my fingers crossed but they eventually decided on something with better rent. But not before they plucked the mandevilla vine clear of every single aphid.
Or, your birds may be squatters who insist that it is their garden, not yours.
You may love them, or you may hate them, or both. The two-sided, love it/hate it secret to living with birds, I believe, is to first embrace their lovely aspects – as does my friend Myke, who describes with childlike glee the hummingbirds and gold finches buzzing about his mountain garden, oblivious to the fact that it is his garden. Perhaps it is he who is oblivious about whose garden is whose. Secondly and just as importantly, you must either find creative ways to deal with the sometimes destructive nature of our avian friends, or make peace with it. Excepting Mr. and Mrs. Starling, I am a proponent of the latter. To do otherwise seems foolhardy. I have seen many a tree draped with tinsel and foil and huge fake plastic owls in the delusional hope that a handful of cherries can be saved. All to no avail, as I have also seen various birds collecting the tinsel to decorate their nests, or sitting atop the plastic owls in order to get a better vantage from which to pluck cherries. Real birds know a real owl from a fake owl, and rightfully so. My friend Matthew tells a harrowing story of a nighttime exchange between barn owls…a rasp followed by a whistle, answered first from one corner of his darkened back yard, then another. He was truly frightened, much more fear than a stationary plastic owl could ever generate. The birds know that difference as well.
As I grow old(er), I realize that it is, indeed, our responsibility to live in harmony with the other living beings inhabiting our planet, including the birds. As I write this, my peaches are nearing perfect, tree-ripened glory. This has not gone unnoticed by the birds. For the past few days that same pair of perky red-headed house finches who visited last spring but opted for a better location have dropped by toward evening to cautiously peck at a peach, testing for ripeness. I understand that they may get one, or two, or even half of my harvest. But if I pay attention, I, too, will catch the moment of ripeness. I will get my share, and they will get their share. It will be my way of thanking them for the organic aphid control.
Birds remind me that it is indeed possible to love and hate something at the same time, to simultaneously desire and to be repelled, to be unable to live with or live without. They remind me that it is possible for love to transmogrify into something ugly and resentful, but that it is also possible for hate to transform into something beautiful and poignant. For me, birds exemplify the world of endless possibility. They are a physical reminder that the two opposite ends of any spectrum might at any time twist and turn until they meet, until they murmurate into a new, fantastically complete cosmic connection. For me, birds are the living embodiment of all endless, opposing possibilities.
Among at least 100,000 species of trees in the world (no one seems to know exactly how many there are): Salix x sepulcralis, Salix babylonica, Salix alba, Quercus bicolor, Quercus palustris, Populus sargentii, Picea pungens, Citrus x lemon, Citrus x sinensis, Ginko biloba, Prunus persica, Ficus carica, Acer negundo.
Trees –Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
My sixth grade homeroom teacher was Mrs. O’Neill, a tall redhead with impeccable, albeit matronly, style. I had a bit of a boyhood crush on her. OK, more than a bit. Never mind that she was going on sixty and had been married for an eternity to the town’s Fire Chief, or that I was only eleven and already the seething embers of flamboyancy sparked. Crushes happen, period. It’s a fact that they don’t always make sense.
I blame my unquestioning acceptance of her poetry choices on this youthful infatuation, for it’s another truth of crushes that they make one turn a blind eye. Although I was only eleven years old, I possessed a prescient knowledge of who I was to become in the years ahead and there are certain key images contained in Mr. Kilmer’s infamous tree poem that directly conflicted with that foresight. A less enamored boy might have resisted.
Lets talk boobs. Knockers, hooters, bazooms. Your mammary glands, ma’am.
Mammals have them – Mrs. O’Neill had just taught us this fact, shocking us with the new knowledge that we were thusly defined. However, even a recently-illuminated eleven-year-old can intuitively understand that boobs aren’t his thing. Further, any farm boy worth his weight in oats knows that trees don’t have them. Burls? Sure. Boobs? Never. After all, the country cliché is “colder than a witch’s teat in January”, not a “beech’s teat”.
Reality check aside, had I not been blinded by my adoration of Mrs. O’Neill, I might have allowed myself to be rightly repulsed by the references to bosoms and flowing breasts (my sincere apologies to my lesbian sisters and my heterosexual brothers, but just imagine if your sixth-grade homeroom teacher had subjected you to poetry describing penile imagery, flowing or not).
Still, Kilmer’s classic was the poem that Mrs. O’Neill tucked into my tiny mind as she led the class out of homeroom and into the neighborhood one stunning autumn day in Basin, Wyoming, early October, 1969. And in my state of total adulation, I simply followed. Like a love-struck, wagging puppy.
The sharp October sky was a perfect backdrop for the radiant autumn leaves, and the twin steeples of the First Baptist Church punctuated the postcard-perfection with white exclamation points. Norman Rockwell might have wet his knickers had he witnessed the wholesome American goodness of it all.
Our assignment for this idyllic amble through our hometown? Look at the trees – really look at them. Make sketches. And when we returned to the classroom, we were to produce, using watercolors, a greeting card with our favorite autumnal tree on it.
In retrospect, I think Mrs. O’Neill had her own reasons for this afternoon stroll. Thirty rambunctious sixth-graders just back from summer vacation corralled in a stuffy afternoon classroom might drive even a saint like Eleanor O’Neill a bit batty. Bless her heart; I now believe she just needed some fresh air and some wide-open space to absorb our considerable communal noise. But it was a beautiful walk, and one that is still with me all these many years later. I can clearly remember the sun warming my ruddy face and glistening off the Aquanet in Mrs. O’Neill’s bouffant. I can recall the smell of someone burning leaves in the distance; I can recall the smell of the Aquanet beginning to melt.
But most importantly, it is the first time I remember really looking at the trees.
And I have never stopped.
I chose to study for that sixth-grade assignment a Weeping Willow (Salix x sepulcralis) which was still turning color, the leaves partially the translucent summer tint of green lemons, but overlaid with the bright yet pale autumn tone of ripe lemons. In the brilliant glow of mid-afternoon, the effect was as though it had been stripple painted, ripples of yellow and green cascading down from a heart-shaped crown in elegant, citrus-hued arches.
If I dare say so myself, my card was the best of show. It was the only one that Mrs. O’Neill chose to send to the county fair the following summer, along with the best of the best art projects produced by our small school district’s students throughout the academic year. It probably didn’t hurt that it was in her front yard that said Willow weeped. Regardless, I won a blue ribbon
The Weeping Willow also painfully reminds me of one past torrid incidence wherein I was tossed to the curb by a cowboy paramour. This was during the years I lived in Denver, the Mile High City where hats and boots and country music reign supreme. We’ll call my caballero Crazy Bill because, well, he was crazy (probably still is) and his name was Bill (certainly still is). That crazy, crazy cowboy fool. No blue ribbon in that one.
After the dumping ritual, I couldn’t get enough of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”. I listened to it obsessively. In fact, the endless repetition of that song gave the depression more legs than it had right of. That song kept the heartache walking long, long after midnight. Seems the sustenance of the blues is an outcome particular to listening to sad country music, a fact I was clueless about at the time. Funny, isn’t it, how youth prefer self-flagellation to moving on? Yes, funny. I can’t stop laughing..
To this day I can get misty when I hear the song and imagine a heartbroken Ms. Cline singing it (that sad, sad movie didn’t help). Perhaps it is late one evening after she and Charlie Dick have been fighting more virulently than usual. Maybe he left with another woman. Patsy is wearing tight, black, fitted pants and a red country-girl jacket with white fringe. Her bouffant is shellacked with Aquanet. She is walking and wailing – after midnight! Eventually she ends up in front of Mrs. O’Neill’s house and when she sees Mrs. O’Neill’s and my tree, she suddenly stops. And then sings, “I stop to see a weeping willow, crying on his pillow, maybe he’s crying for me. And as the skies turn gloomy, night winds whisper to me, I’m lonesome as I can be.”
To this day, the Weeping Willow, which is a hybrid of the Peking Willow (Salix babylonica) from China and the White Willow (Salix alba) from Europe, is one of my favorite trees. I say “one of” because, well, I am a fickle Queen Gardener. I have many favorite trees.
In the spring, I love the Maples as they burst forth with their tiny (some say nondescript), red-pink flowers, soon followed by their helicopter seeds, a fascinating example of seed-distribution evolution at its best. At my advanced age of cough-cough, I still enjoy playing with them, tossing them to the breeze and watching them spiral hither and yonder.
During the summer months, my favorite tree may very well be the lone historic Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) lording over the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and T Streets in Washington, DC, in a tiny fenced park that was commissioned solely to protect the health of her root system. This tree is billed as the oldest and largest living Swamp Oak in The District, and she is certainly a stately specimen. It is no wonder there are plans afoot to install four-hundred Swamp White Oak trees in the newly constructed September 11 Memorial Plaza in Manhattan.
When fall blows in, I can’t seem get enough of the other Oaks, with their leathery bronze leaves and the falling acorns that ping off car hoods and thunk to the ground as I wander the city. Acorns are abundant here in The District, as many of our streets are lined with Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris). No mystery there: the Pin Oak is native to this area and seems very well adapted to the rigors of city life. They are numerous and pedestrian in the city I love, but still I never tire of them or their acorns: because Mrs. O’Neill taught me to really look at the trees, I understand.
Every autumn I gather a few of the fallen nuts to arrange in the cracked white marble ashtray with a bronze squirrel relief that I snatched from my mother’s house after she passed. Squirrels and acorns: a match made in heaven.
During the winter months it is often the barren Elms that catch my attention. They are the contortionists of the tree world, their rough-barked grey limbs swerving above in uncontainable loops and curves. They are particularly romantic when coated with a topping of freshly fallen snow or dangled with the million sparkling crystals of an ice storm.
And of course a list of my favorite trees would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the Wyoming State Tree, the Plains Cottonwood (Populus sargentii), those rough-skinned mammoths who watched over the western-migrating settlers, showed them where water was to be found, provided shade in the heat of summer, gave logs for the building of cabins, and provided wood for heat and light in the darkness of the long Wyoming winters. Not to mention their waxy, heart-shaped leaves which in the evening breeze produce a most unique, soft rustling sound. Those leaves murmur and I can identify their love song long before I have spotted the tree. It is a melody that settles my psyche better than chicken soup. Or Xanax.
One friend (who is known for his love of Xanax, oddly enough) is slightly obsessed with the Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). He is slightly obsessed with many things, but that is not the point here. Regarding his desires for a Colorado Blue Spruce, although the Arbor Day Foundation website says the tree should grow where he lives in Virginia, two have been planted and two have met their demise in his back yard. I will not go into the tale of how the one theoretically romantic mid-winter planting, a couple’s holiday activity, nearly ended in a battle to the death, one partner armed with a shovel and the other’s only defense a locked door, but rest assured that twenty-five years later, both remain alive and they are still coupled.
I am certain that the trees’ untimely deaths were not due to lack of care; when my friend is obsessed, Xanax or not, he does not take his task lightly. Rather, his back yard must be a sort of micro-climate, too hot or wet or dry or windy, something fatal to the Colorado Blue Spruce. My friend swears he will never again plant one – it is too heart wrenching for him to watch them die.
Micro-climates are fascinating. They are unusual, sometimes tiny spots or locations where something that shouldn’t grow, does, simply because some topographical or geological or even manmade feature provides what it needs (or conversely, something does not grow for one reason or another even though statistically, it should, like my friend’s Colorado Blue Spruces).
When the former Mr. Perfect trundled me off to California’s Bay Area, we landed in a locale that was deemed “just a little too far north” for citrus trees to flourish. However, in the micro-climate of my back patio, both a full-sized Lemon tree (Citrus x lemon) and an Orange tree (Citrus x sinensis) thrived. They were planted on the south side of the house and grew over a concrete slab, thusly warmed in the winter months by the reflected sun. I was provided with lemons year-round, and more than enough oranges that all came ripe at once, causing me to stretch my limited culinary prowess to include orange pie, orange cake, orange sherbet, orange vodka, orange everything.
Orange you glad you now understand micro-climates?
Setting those aside, should you find you have a slot itching to be filled by a tree (everyone, get your collective mind out of the gutter), the Arbor Day Foundation website is an excellent resource (www.arborday.org). You can review photos and stats of all sorts of trees, which should help you settle on which specimen your little heart desires most – depending, of course, on what qualities you are primarily seeking: fruit? shade? color? flowers? bird haven? This selection process should be carefully undertaken, as trees are undeniably the most permanent installation in our garden. Their planting should not be taken lightly.
The Arbor Day Foundation’s site can help you determine which species will meet your needs, fit the space you have available, and which varieties thrive in your hardiness zone. You can even order the sapling of your eventual choice at a ridiculously low price. Trust your old Queen Gardener: if you are looking for a tree, this site is worth a look. Just be mindful of your micro-climes. And avoid planting the tree with your partner. Or at the very least, ensure that he has taken his Xanax first.
If I had acreage, I would have one of every kind of tree possible. But therein lays my problem. Until the current Mr. Perfect’s ship comes in, my “acreage” is more “footage”, as I garden on an eighth-floor balcony. Still, I grow trees. I tend an Orange tree, an unidentified evergreen (oh, Lord, how I have tried to identify), a Ginko tree (Ginko biloba), a Peach tree (Prunus persica), and a fig tree (Ficus carica), all potted. I grow them in a variation of bonsai, not the twisted little souls you see at table-top, but larger, up to eight feet tall or so, but maintained so that they are manageable in limited space. I stunt them. As I write, I am looking at my beautiful stunted Peach tree with its thirty-some peaches slowly ripening in the July summer heat.
This stunting is not an easy process, and not one that is advised for the gardener who eschews labor or doesn’t care to glean an elementary understanding of the process of plant growth. This is because it is not entirely a simple process (is any worthwhile process simple?), and it does require some physical work.
The problem with potted plants, trees in particular, is that they become root bound. Their roots grow continually until the pot is filled with roots, not soil. When that happens, the roots strangle themselves and the top of the tree suffers and eventually the whole thing dies.
Just remember this: from infancy onward, a potted tree must be moved to a larger pot each time the top begins to appear oversized compared to the container. It’s that simple. You see, like all things in life, this is a matter of balance. The top and the bottom must be matched
Again, all of you – minds out of the gutter.
Most potted trees grow to this unbalanced/root bound state about every two or three years, unless there was an unfortunate and inappropriate container choice to begin with. Hint: when you first obtain the tree, repot it into a container (one with drain holes) that is two-or-three inches wider and taller than the pot it came in. And then repot again, as I said (repeat after me) every time the tree’s top seems to outsize the container. And repeat again: for most trees, this is about every two or three years. Once a tree reaches roughly the size you would like her to remain, you will begin the semi-bonsai (stunting) process.
Again about every third year, your stunted tree will require three things to stay at her same size and in her same container: to be repotted, to have her roots pruned, and to have her top pruned (the top may be pruned as necessary between repottings to maintain shape and size). It can all be done in one fell swoop, often best accomplished in the early spring before there is any show of leaf activity, but possible during any phase of the growth cycle except active fruiting or flowering.
Carefully remove the tree and root ball from the container. This is where the “labor-intensive” part plays out. An eight foot tree in a twenty-plus-inch container is heavy. Very heavy. You may need help. Muscular help.
Just imagine . . .
Back to task: shake off any loose soil, and then carefully remove at least half of the more stubborn soil from the root ball, being careful not to overtly damage the roots. Then, take a deep breath and prune the exposed roots back to about three-quarters of their original mass (use a standard hand-held pruner). You will also prune the top of the tree back to a (repeat after me, again) c-o-m-p-a-r-a-b-l-e size. Go slowly and pay particular attention to shape. Remove first any crossed or damaged limbs, then evaluate. If the tree is shrub-like, it is usually best to open the middle of the tree to allow for air circulation and new growth. If the tree is more of an upright, single-trunked variety, the usual configuration is Y-shaped.
Then repot. Note that these planting instructions also apply to a new, free-range sapling being planted in an out-of-doors location as well as for the routine repotting of a growing sapling as you wait for her to attain the size you desire so you can begin the stunting process.
First, pour one or two inches of pea-gravel in the bottom of a pot with good drainage (if planting a tree in the ground, just dig an appropriate hole and forego the gravel). In the center, on top of the pea gravel, make a mound of soil. Spread the roots over that mound, positioning so that the portion of the tree’s trunk that should be at ground level will be at ground level when the pot is filled with soil. Use a high-grade commercial potting mix and fill around and over the roots, tamping gently to compress the new soil. Water thoroughly, after which you may have to add more soil due to settling.
If the tree is not dormant when you undertake this stunting process, she may wilt and pout for a day or two. She may drop a few leaves. Just keep her moist and spare her from direct sunlight and, presto, she will survive. When she does you can name her Gloria Gaynor and drape her in sparkly disco gear. Hey, hey.
I love my potted trees, but when Mr. Perfect procures the proper acreage for me, I very well may love my full-sized trees even more. One specimen I know I will plant is a Box Elder (Acer negundo), which is actually a mid-sized, quick-growing Maple species. In my youth, oh those centuries ago in prehistoric Wyoming, a lone Box Elder tree jutted at an angle out of our farm’s pig sty and loomed above the barnyard. The Box Elder is known to prefer wet, fertile locations, and that fairly well sums up a ditch bank pig sty. This tree’s angle of growth and the placement of its lateral branches made it a perfect climbing tree, a veritable ladder. At about thirty feet above the ground there was a fork in the main trunk, creating a seat that perfectly cradled a young boy’s body.
Look, Ma! No hands.
There, solitarily suspended in the leaf-cooled, green-filtered air, watching the multitude of black and red Box Elder bugs go about making baby Box Elder bugs, I whittled away many a disappointment, heartbreak, and punishment, but also reveled in my youthful accomplishments. It was my secret, lofty place, and while not quite a tree house, it was at least a tree lounge. I adored it.
Children, especially the urban children I am witness to these days, grow up differently that I did. I sound like my father in saying that, but in this case what he said has been proven to be true. Times change, children change. They grow up faster now-a-days, and this instills in me a certain sadness about them. By all appearances, they have never been taught to really look at the trees, have never found their private tree to climb. They are not afforded an opportunity to experience what it is like to have no more expectation than to lounge, young and free and in a tree. More’s the pity.
Early spring. The rusted metal of my old spade slashes the soil’s crust as I prepare the garden spot behind my old house. This postage stamp of a plot has lain fallow for years, resting, reclaiming nourishment from the mulch of each autumn’s leaf debris. I coax the first matte-brown shovelful from its snug earthen bed, releasing the topsoil’s lurking potential. The clod lifts, rolls over, and breaks down to fertile loam. I swear it sighs in relief, and when its fecund scent rises as grit to my nostrils, I inhale
As I toil in the fresh air of the new spring day, scenes from my life filter through my mind. I squirrel these away like seeds saved in the bottom of a paper envelope, vignettes and scents and quotes and conflicts all duly logged into the creative bank account and bound to find their way into one piece of work or another. Eventually. For although these ruminations are a latent packet of inspiration for a writer, I don’t tarry over them now. In truth, I am creatively tired. In this, my fallow season, as my spirit is regenerated and my life is lived, I rest my mind with this garden work.
(The above essay appeared in slightly different form in “Bylines: A Writer’s Calendar”, October, 2006.)
Rosa woodsii and Rosa foetida persiana (among the hundreds of species, and the thousands of individual hybrids and cultivars)
Rose Etta Mae Peterson Mowell (February 27, 1895 – February 9, 1988)
Shirley Illene Mowell Lassiter (September 11, 1929 – November 19, 2007)
Big Horn County, Wyoming – July, 1985. Several years have passed since my last hometown visit, and Mom is taking me to call on my grandmother. She forewarns; first as we drive the five country miles to the “Old Folks’ Home”, and again as we walk the antiseptic hallway to Grandma Rose’s room. But the creature I see propped in the bed rattles me. It is rail thin, wide-eyed but unfocused, bushy-haired. This is not the tidy Baptist grandmother of my memory.
“Everett!” this banshee exclaims.
“It’s Jackson,” Mom corrects her, matter-of-factly, and continues in the same breath to me, “she hasn’t slept in weeks. She would feel better if she slept.”
My mother makes this trek twice a day; my grandmother refuses to eat for anyone else. By the time it is over, Mom will have done so for fifteen years. Today she wears the weariness of motherhood turned upside-down like a wrinkled, every-day dress. Still she straightens the bric-a-brac displayed on Grandma’s metal hospital-room dresser. She dusts the large-number clock and calendar, the ceramic bird figurines, and the family photographs in pretty silver frames. Mom hopes these familiarities will kindle Grandma’s memory.
But Grandma’s memory sparks only randomly.
“Everett, where have you been?” she asks, impatiently and in a girlish voice. Everett is her brother. He died of emphysema sixteen years ago.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Mom says. “I need to talk to the nurses. Sit, keep your Grandma company.” She gestures toward the dull green vinyl bedside chair as she shuffles the weight of her responsibility through the doorway.
Grandma stares at me, silently. I stare back, uncomfortable, unsure of what to say. I haltingly reach for her hand. The dry skin crinkles at my touch, like a delicate handmade paper that is too fine for any real use. Blood surges through the veins that snake just below the crust of her crepe forearm.
Not so long ago these hands held me firmly as I struggled against a face-washing.
“Grandma, it’s me, Jackson,” I peep, bird-like. I am overly cautious with this familiar yet strange character.
“Can we go to the pond, Everett? Take me to the pond,” she coos. “Mama says I can wade if you watch out for me.”
“Grandma, look at me.” I try to sound gruff, authoritarian, but my voice breaks and comes out a pleading child’s. She looks anyway, and smiles.
“I love you, Everett.”
“I love you, too, Rose,” I answer automatically, impulsively. Alzheimer’s blurs the roles and I follow suit. Grandma chats as a ten-year-old girl and I listen as her older brother, and even though I can’t comprehend the medical complexities that relegate her to this reality, we meet here.
For half an hour, I visit her world, until her chatter dwindles and her fingers flutter in mine. She naps, peacefully, such as a girl who has spent the afternoon with her brother might nap. I rise to leave but as I cross the threshold to the hallway, I hear the child’s voice behind me.
“Good night, Everett. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Grandma.”
(The above essay was previously published in Temenos, the literary journal of the University of Central Michigan, under the name “A Wilting Rose”, May, 2007.)
There is no way I can write about Roses without mourning the loss of my beloved Grandma Rose and my beautiful mother, Shirley. Roses, for me, conjure up all kinds of vivid memories of these two, and like the emotional wreck I often am, I sometimes cry. Not to worry, dear readers, they are as often tears of joy as they are tears of sadness. I was blessed in so many ways.
It is not only me who has this visceral response to roses: all of my friends, when the flower of love is brought up, tilt their head to one side and get a distant look to their eyes. And then they commence reminiscing about their father’s rose garden or their grandmother’s favorite white rose or the red roses draped over the casket at their boyfriend’s funeral or the beautiful lavender roses at their first wedding. Roses, it seems, hold a prominent place in our cumulative memory, especially when associated with those we love, whether that be our biological families or our chosen families
The Wyoming farmhouse I grew up in housed a lot of people who were biological family – seven brothers, when all were present. And three parents: my father, the disciplinarian; my wonderful mother, the counselor; and my maternal grandmother, Rose Mowell, a hybrid of both approaches. Grandma Rose didn’t physically live with us, but she was present in my life most days, and was just as much a force in my development as either of my parents – more so than my father, truth be told.
It was Grandma Rose who chugged up our unpaved lane every Sunday in her lemon yellow 1952 Chevrolet Bel Air Coupe, first making sure we were in our Sunday best, then checking our fingernails and behind our ears for cleanliness, and finally giving us each a nickel for the collection plate before driving the lot of us to church. Not just Sunday School, but church – as in all-day First Baptist Church. We started off respectable, but soon enough it was yawn, yawn, fidget, yawn. Then we got a stern pinch from Grandma Rose, and we were once again all good posture and dutiful attention.
As you may have noted from other chapters, “the Baptist word” didn’t “stick” in my case, no matter how hell-bent Grandma was on ensuring that my soul was saved. However, what did stick with me were the day-to-day examples of genuine loyalty, gentle kindness, hard-headed perseverance, and the dedicated work ethic that both my grandma and my mother exhibited, easily, without effort. It was just who they were, naturally.
Being the sissy boy of the bunch, I was most often to be found in the kitchen with Mom and Grandma, or, if we were at Grandma’s house “in town” instead of on the farm, in her garden tending the flowers with her. In reality, although I lived a life surrounded primarily by men, it was these two wonderful women I identified with most. It was my mother and my grandmother who molded with their strong country hands my budding persona. I credit them with teaching me how to be me.
Both of my parents accepted who and what I was, and gave their approval. I believe my Grandma Rose might have, had she lived long enough to see my contented life, even though she was of a different time and culture. Regardless, the love I still feel for her, and the love I know she felt for me, could never have been diminished.
My father’s family lived in other parts of the country, and rarely visited. We can color them gone, out of the picture. But my mother’s family was local, and we were entwined in the way that rural, extended families are. We saw them often, all except for my mother’s brother, Uncle Glenn, who lived abroad and married a Bolivian woman. Uncle Glenn and Aunt Flora Linda, very exotic in mid-century Wyoming, visited each summer, bringing with them my beautiful cousin Carla Marie with her pure Latina complexion and gorgeous dark hair. I maintained an innocent and unspoken crush on Carla Marie throughout childhood, until puberty and hormones arrived and her crush was shoved aside by not-quite-so-innocent crushes I developed on various boys.
To this day I believe it is a direct result of Carla Marie’s early influence that I have such a weakness for Latin men.
In the small town environment of my childhood, where all kinds of social ties were easily maintained, I took for granted the concept of “family” connections. But Grandma Rose kept note of the jumble of intermingling, of marriages and births and deaths, and could connect the dots and prove to me that I was related by blood or marriage to just about anyone in our tiny community. Grandma Rose knew the value of family. She remembered who begat who and who married who and who was whose third cousin twice removed.
The family of roses, the plant, is entirely a different story. The truth is, I need a Grandma Rose in order to comprehend their genealogy. It is just a tiny bit bizarre that this flower, which is so often linked to poignant memories of family, has such a convoluted and commingled history that it is all but impossible to trace the lineage of any single cultivar. And it is no help that the reference materials are packed with conflicting information. What some books classify as a hybrid perpetual rose, others classify as a Bourbon. How is the home gardener to be certain, when even the rose experts can’t agree? Still, in a general way, it is possible to follow the basic progression of rose variety development (most of which, it is noted, occurred in France and China). Deep breath, and, in a nutshell…
…prior to the eighteenth century, there were two distinct types of cultivated roses: the European and the Oriental. The European varieties, of which there are thousands of cultivars, these roses having been tended since the days of ancient Rome, have certain traits in common. This is largely due to the purposes for which they were historically grown. They are blessed with an unforgettable perfume (rose attar), more powerful than most people accustomed to the modern hybrids even realize is possible. This made them the key ingredient in potpourri, or the “rotten pot” as it was known – an ugly name for such a beautiful purpose. European roses were developed primarily for scent, secondarily for show.
There was also a third purpose. These western varieties, which bloom only once per summer, also bear large, red, orange, or black rose hips, or seed pods, which have been utilized throughout civilized history for two primary purposes. In a culinary sense, rose hips are used to make jams, jellies, soups, marmalades, syrups, pies, breads, and wines. They have also historically been used medicinally. The hips (or haws, as they are sometimes called) of the Dog Rose (Rosa canina) and Japanese Rose (Rosa rugosa) have the highest concentration of Vitamin C of any plant material known – higher than any citrus fruit.
These traits of strong perfume, a single blooming period per summer, and edible rose hips give the European roses a recognizable kinship with the wild roses, and, indeed, they bear a marked physical similarity. It is said that even if the petals are multiplied a hundredfold, they still resemble the flowers of wild roses. And like wild roses, these ones are as hardy as rocks, weather and disease resistant, lasting forever and often growing as big as trees.
Oh, but I love the wild roses. There are few things more spectacular or meaningful to the Queen Gardener.
Along the lower elevations of Shell Creek and other Northern Wyoming waterways, the Wyoming wild roses (more formally called Woods Rose (Rosa woodsii)), erupt with fragrant, flattened, pastel pink blooms every June. When I was a child and throughout my turbulent teen years, my mother and I made elaborate excuses to get away from everyone else to treat ourselves to long, special, country road drives, in order to bear witness to their glory. It was our secret, an annual mother-son mutual admiration bonding outing that lives on in my memory: just the two of us, the wild roses, and intimate, heartfelt conversation.
The flowers of the Wyoming wild rose are single, meaning there is only one row of petals – five, to be exact – surrounding a bright yellow center. Although it has once again been several years since I last visited Wyoming, since my Mother’s funeral, in fact, I am confident these beauties have continued to burst forth every June. When in bloom, their scent overtakes the mid-summer breeze and the flowers, as I experience them, are more gorgeous than any of the over-exaggerated hybridized and cultivated rose varieties. Pink, simple, and delicate.
I love them so much that more than once during my adolescence, I dug up a few of the young shoots and transplanted them to the farm, where they immediately withered and died. My mother gently and lovingly explained to me that some wild things simply don’t like to be cultivated. In later years, following one miserable failure of a relationship or another, she would repeat the same words.
Wild roses are laden with symbolism. In ancient Rome, those in charge placed a wild rose on the door of any room where a secret or otherwise confidential discussion was taking place. The subsequent phrase “sub rosa”, or “under the rose”, used world-wide by contemporary government “agencies” and their attendant legal types, means to keep a secret or act covertly. In fact, in many Catholic churches, the confessional booths are decorated with carved details of five-petalled wild rose blossoms to symbolize that whatever happens in the booth stays in the booth.
The wild roses of Wyoming are not secretive at all, however. There is nothing covert about them. They grow in huge, impenetrable brambles that provide a safe haven to many little feathered and furry friends, as their arching, entwined red canes are armed with a staggering number of prickles. They provide a sensually-scented fortress for our lowland wildlife friends.
Here’s one interesting tidbit, and then I swear to eventually get back to the boring stuff: roses do not, technically, have thorns. Their armor is prickles, or outgrowths of the epidermis. A thorn, like that of the citrus or Russian Olive trees, is a specialized branch or twig. Prickle and thorn are not the same, but this doesn’t matter, I say. To be stabbed by either hurts like hell! Pardon my French.
When Grandma Rose heard me swear as a child – most likely a word I picked up from my older brothers and didn’t quite understand – she dragged me by one arm to her always-sparkling bathroom and placed a bar of bath soap in my mouth until it foamed and burned – to clean out the dirty words, she said. At times I ran to my mother to woefully protest, but my mother just waggled one finger at me and, with a simple shrug of her shoulders, reminded me that it was my duty to not only meet her and my father’s standards, but Grandma Rose’s as well.
After a certain period of tearful foaming, when the punishment meted out matched the seriousness of my sin, Grandma Rose softened and allowed me to wash away the Lux-tasting nastiness with cool water. Eventually, as she always did, Grandma Rose forgave me with a hug and a handful of the cookies she dutifully baked every Saturday morning to ensure that little hands reaching into her Aunt Jemima cookie jar didn’t come up empty. She produced only two varieties, but to this day peanut butter cookies with fork prints on the top or chocolate oatmeal no-bake cookies are nearly as potent for me as roses in conjuring memories.
Finally Grandma sent me scampering outside – unattended (!), as those were more innocent times – to contemplate the garden and my no-longer-filthy mouth.
But back to the roses – to the budding European vs. Oriental dilemma. The Oriental roses began arriving in Europe during the eighteenth century aboard ships from China loaded with goods from that part of the world, including tea. There is some question as to whether they were given the moniker “Tea Roses” because of this association, or because of a tea-like scent. Personally, I have never smelled tea on these roses, but I am hardly a qualified judge. I’ve never been a fan of tea: I’m as American as they come, preferring instead to start my day with several cups of strong coffee.
Grandma Rose, while primarily of German ancestry, was also as American as they come. She got me jacked up on coffee at a very early age. I have memories, almost photographic in detail, of pulling a chair up to the mottled gray Formica and chrome dinette set in her tiny, cluttered kitchen, at no more than six or seven years of age. There I enjoyed copious amounts of the previously-mentioned cookies dipped in a coffee, evaporated milk and sugar mixture (so much sugar it was syrup, really) served in a chipped beige porcelain mug. Meanwhile, Grandma Rose and my mother would make “grown up talk”. I pretended not to listen, but learned oh-so-much about the life of adults.
I’ve since stopped using the sugar, and have switched to 2% milk. My aging body has slowed down and doesn’t burn the fats and sugars as it once did. But I still enjoy my coffee. And two of my all-time favorite possessions are my grandmother’s battered stove-top coffee percolator and the Aunt Jemima cookie jar from her kitchen. After Grandma passed, my mother saved them both for me because she “just knew” I would appreciate them. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
But, again, back to the roses. The Orientals, or Tea Roses as everyone soon came to call them, were shockingly beautiful to western rose growers, with their impossible colors, their beautiful shapes, and their ever-blooming habit. The breeders of the Orientals grew them solely for their looks, and cared not a whit for any other trait.
The true Tea Roses are tropical plants, not hardy outside of southern climes, and that was their primary fault relative to growing in this “new world”. They have no gene to alert them to approaching inclement weather, and will not go dormant. They go on blooming and blooming until the first freeze, and then they die. Their second fault is the lack of rose attar, meaning they don’t really smell like roses. Their third fault? They are susceptible to every known rose issue including blight, insects, rust, mildew, cankers and black spot, to name just a few. The list is virtually endless. They are a difficult lot, something like the African Violet: too beautiful for words, too high maintenance for reality.
It was only a matter of time until some bright soul thought to hybridize these two varieties in hopes of getting the best of both – the hardiness and the perfume of the European varieties and the ever-blooming quality and refined form of the Orientals.
Quite like mixing the right amounts of blue and red to come up with the perfect shade of lavender.
The funny thing is, while rose enthusiasts were diligently trying to make this occur, it happened quite naturally, by accident! French settlers had planted the old world Damask rose (Rosa X biferia) and the Oriental rose called Old Blush (Rosa chinensis) together in hedgerows on the Ile de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean. As any living species is known to do, even on occasion the Queen Gardener himself, they mated. Seedlings produced from this idyllic tryst reached Paris about 1822, and the Bourbon roses were born. They were called “Hybrid Teas”, and they were essentially the beginning of the downfall of the old world European garden roses.
A different rose arrived on Western shores at about the same time as the Orientals, around 1837, this one from Iran. This is a rose that, somehow, again, naturally and in the wild, hybridized, with stunning results. This variety is quite appropriately named the Persian Yellow Rose (Rosa foetida persiana), a lively, bright, sunshine-yellow rose that belongs to the family of fetid roses, so named for their lack of rose perfume, replaced instead by a scent that some find disagreeable (the Merriam-Webster definition of fetid is “having a heavy, offensive smell”).
This hardy, wildling specimen was a favorite of the westward-migrating American settlers, as it is disease and weather resistant and transports easily. To this day, it can be found growing feral and unattended all across our country – in rural cemeteries, at the site of abandoned homesteads, and in the overgrown municipal parks of old-time settled villages.
Grandma Rose had a large Persian Yellow rose bush in the corner of her front yard, and it bloomed once every summer in vivid, bee-covered profusion. To this day, a yellow rose can bring a tear of joy to my eyes.
Funny thing: other than standing back in appreciation, I don’t remember Grandma Rose providing much care to this rose bush. I don’t remember her fertilizing, spraying, pruning, watering, or in any way nurturing that rose, which heroically withstood both the arctic Wyoming winters and the desert-like summers. For all I know, some forty-plus year later, alone and abandoned, that rose bush still squats on the corner of that lot in Greybull, Wyoming, blooming on cue every summer as though Grandma Rose and I were there to adore it.
I also don’t remember its scent being anything close to fetid. As I remember it, the fragrance was slightly licorice-like, and the foliage itself had a definite apple scent. I found it to be most agreeable. One man’s fetid is another man’s licorice, I am lead to believe.
As the Persian Yellow is wont to do, Grandma’s bush sent out countless suckers every spring. In fact, the only rose tending I remember Grandma offering that bush was the annual digging out of the suckers. I transplanted several to various locations on the farm and they always took root with ease, beautifying the fencerows and orchard and surviving all the harshness that being a wildling threw at them, including one pasture bush which was routinely eaten to ground level by apparently steel-toothed horses.
Motherly advice aside, it seems there are wild things that do, indeed, take to domestication.
But back to the roses.
We left their family history at the time that the Europeans had been commingled with the Orientals, resulting in the first Hybrid Teas, the Bourbons. Oh, if only well-enough had been left alone. The Bourbons possess all of the positive traits of both parents (like Grandma Rose!). They are at once voluptuous and delicate, heavenly scented and perfectly formed roses, as if they had been pressed into a teacup. They are hardier than the Orientals and ever-blooming, unlike the Europeans.
However, as if we all didn’t know, well enough is never left alone.
In each succeeding step of rose development and hybridization, a loss was registered along with whatever gain was achieved. In the 1920’s, the Hybrid Teas were crossed with the Polyanthas to make Floribundas, and then in 1954, the Floribundas were re-crossed with Hybrid Teas to come up with Grandifloras. None of these have any perfume so to speak of. They are susceptible to every rose disease that comes along, and grow on vines so unwieldy that the average small garden cannot accommodate them.
Oh, so many things the Queen Gardener could say about things too large to accommodate, but these things should be left to the reader’s imagination.
Imagine, if you will, a stout German farm boy . . . never mind.
Those conducting the early rose breeding programs had two obvious choices: go with the European values of hardiness and perfume, or with the Oriental value of delicate/difficult beauty. The Orientals won that battle, and to this day rose breeders continue to take that approach, developing unusual, sometimes shocking and unnatural new colors and shapes and continuing, bit by bit, to breed all perfume and hardiness out of modern roses. Such is our loss.
In recent years, however, it seems that the heritage roses have been making a comeback, based on the number of varieties available for commercial purchase. But this is probably not in time for the average backyard or urban gardener. The bushes are huge and the fragrant blooms make only a brief appearance once each summer. Without sufficient space to camouflage their gigantic barrenness for the remainder of the year, these relics are relegated to a life spent in large-scale formal rose gardens and conservatories.
Sorrowfully, the rose breeders’ drive to hybridize and modify didn’t stop there. On the other end of the spectrum they have developed the miniatures, true hybridized roses which grow to no more than one foot and come in any color and blossom configuration a gardener desires. They are truly a potted plant, but here’s the problem: they are advertised as border or bedding plants. However, like most hybridized roses (except, possibly, the Persian Yellow and Bourbons), they must be deadheaded, sprayed, fertilized, checked for blight and spots and bugs, and pruned . . . all from a position of laying horizontal on the ground, I am assuming. This Queen Gardener is much, much too old to be lying on his side in the garden caring for something that, in reality, isn’t going to thrive anyway. I can’t even keep them alive in their pots!
Still, every single time I pass the display at the nursery or, even worse, the local grocery store, I am compelled to purchase one. They are so adorable in their miniature-ness. This time, I think to myself, every time, it will last.
It never does, always succumbing to a quick demise within days.
Some roses, given my experience with the suckers of the Yellow Persian, require very little from us, yet still survive. These are like my Grandma Rose, who migrated to Wyoming from Missouri, lived in a tent on a river bottom until appropriate housing could be arranged, then put down roots and raised her five children despite her husband’s leaving and enough depression-era adversity to make rose blight look like child’s play. These ones are meant to thrive; others, not so much. They quickly depart, like every miniature I’ve every purchased.
If I had endless garden space, I would attempt to grow the old world garden roses. They are hardier, less labor-intensive, and generally present fewer problems for the gardener. Besides reminding me of better times passed, they are, quite frankly, much less likely to turn up dead. They fairly well care for themselves, and it is this Queen Gardener’s opinion that the brief bloom every summer is worth the months of nothing if for no other reason than their heavenly perfume.
However, the moderns, for all their demands, are sometimes so beautiful in form and color that they cannot be passed over – something like my obsession with the miniatures.
Like fetid vs. licorice, one man’s pleasure is another man’s pain.
Whichever rose you choose, there are three basic rules for its initial planting. Follow them, and you might (might!) be rewarded with blooms. They will be perfumed, on huge vines, and show up only once per summer if you chose an old world garden rose, or relatively unscented but colorful and constant should you choose one of the modern hybrids. Regardless of your liking, the three rules are:
1. Buy quality bushes, preferably locally grown. If that is not a possibility, look for a reliable mail order nursery and know your hardiness zone. Plant in the early spring. If you are planting bare-root roses, make sure that they have been soaked in a bucket of water for up to 24 hours before planting. Remember that once a rose is established, with proper care and a dose of good luck, it can last at least ten to fifteen years; much longer if it is one of the old world, European, varieties. It is best to be certain the rose is in a location where it will be welcome in years to come.
2. Plant the bush where it will receive at least six hours of good light in well drained soil in a location where it is at least minimally protected from strong winds.
3. Feed a little (with 6% nitrogen, 8% phosphorus and 6% potassium), but not until the second year, and then only feed once or twice a growing season. Water a lot (A LOT!) until the bush is established. After that, unless drought sets in or you do, truly, live in a desert, the bush will probably be happy with standard landscape watering.
I know, dear reader: that’s really seven or more rules compressed to look like three. But trust me, just like any relationship, it’s not quite as simple as presented, and not quite as impossible as it seems. Of course, you may also need to deadhead, spray, shape, contain, worry over, winterize, pray about, and light candles for (or in memory of), but the three(ish) basics hold true and many a beautiful rose bush has been long-lived because of them.
But, wait! What does one do with that rose after it is established and threatening to engulf the entire back yard, prickles and all? Well, let me give you a few more basics (very basic) about pruning, but first a story.
Experience has taught me that these are no steadfast rules to pruning roses. I once had a boyfriend who was obsessive about pruning. He was obsessive about many things, but for now we will just leave it at pruning the roses.
Any summer evening he could be found in the back yard of his rental home that came complete with a variety of heritage and modern roses, shears in hand, cutting away that which he – no rose expert! – deemed undesirable. Mind you, eventually it was I who deemed him undesirable and subsequently snipped him out of my life, but then that’s another story, entirely. We are discussing rose pruning, not Queen Gardener sanity-preserving pruning. The morale of this tale is, he clipped and clipped and clipped, with not even a basic knowledge of what to cut and what not to cut, and every summer the roses bloomed, regardless.
Should you develop an obsessive need to prune, here are a few basic tips to help you keep your snippiness in check.
If growing the miniatures, and they live longer than the seven days I am accustomed to, just give the entire bush a “hair cut”. Just a few inches all around. If yours is a climbing rose, just affix it where you want it to grow and prune very gently, without disturbing the main laterals, as best you can so that it will accommodate the space you have provided it. As an aside, do you know that they, the climbers, don’t really climb? They lean. And it is your job, as rose-tender-primario, to “affix” them here and there so they won’t come a’ tumbling down at the first robust gust of wind.
If it’s a rambler you are pruning, my advice is: don’t. Just let it ramble. In Denver I once bought a house with a lengthy side yard fence completely buried by rambling roses. Around the middle of June, these bushes produced a beautiful, moderately-scented and pastel pink bloom, small in size but grouped in clusters of four or five blossoms all along the length of the gracefully arching canes. They transformed the fence they leaned over into a veritable pink snowdrift. I never once pruned them other than to remove dead or damaged wood and they rewarded me every June with that fencerow of pink. Stunning.
If your rose has finished blooming, and like many urban gardeners you need to save space, prune with caution. Again, don’t prune anything until after the blooms have fallen, and then remove dead wood and weak or stunted new growth first. Then, if pruning an upright variety, shape appropriately but try not to remove more than just about one quarter of the top of each upright cane. And always cut just above a “bud eye”, the visible node above a leaf steam or branch where new growth originates.
With that scant advice, I leave you to tend this flower long known to symbolize so many different things in so many different cultures, from a name for the colors pink and red in several languages, to English rugby football, to royalty and death and family. Foremost, though, roses are a universal symbol of love, beauty and virtue, as illustrated by their sacred role to the Goddess Isis, whose rose appears in the classical allegorical novel, The Golden Ass.
Oh, what a Queen Gardener wouldn’t do for a Golden Ass.
But that longing aside, the rose of Isis is described in the novel as “the sweet rose of reason and virtue”, and eventually this rose, through love and devotion, saves the hero Lucius from his belabored and bewitched life as a donkey. I am not golden, and certainly not an ass, but to my dying breath I will believe it was my sweet Grandma Rose’s and my beautiful Mother Shirley’s “reason and virtue” that saved me from a life that, quite frankly, could have ended up a belabored disaster.
These are the women who taught me to be true to myself, to honor both my biological and chosen families and to uphold my personal faith. They taught me to keep my posture upright and my mouth clean, to work hard and love harder. They taught me to appreciate the life I have been given. They taught me to take the time to smell the roses. The ancients may have linked the rose to their goddesses, Isis, Aphrodite and Venus, but the Queen Gardener will always link roses to his personal goddesses: Grandma Rose and Mom Shirley.
May there be abundant sweet roses where they are now, Wyoming wild roses for my mother and Persian Yellows for Grandma Rose. And there, in the serenity of the roses, may their God rest their remarkable souls in peace.