Tomatoes, from the small to the gigantic, are like emblems of profound lushness, rain, heat and daylight.
Mini-zebras—they’d be like museum pieces, if there weren’t so many of them.
Mammoth Beefsteak—a state-fair-sized specimen from Don’s Covesville garden.
Readers of this blog may remember last summer’s Covesville field reclamation project, working only with rain and aboriginal creek bottom soil, red clay thickly studded with white quartz fragments. This year, with better planning, results in Covesville are interesting compared to our intensive raised bed scheme maintained primarily by Karen. Since the Covesville garden is primarily maintained by Don, it’s obvious that I personally am too lazy to garden.
Standing next to Mike Reilly in Covesville is a massive volunteer Japanese winter squash.
A long L-shaped row of winter squashes, pumpkins and gourds.
Corn: a success this year, for the raccoons who claimed it.
The tale is not finished at Covesville, but plant diseases and insect infestations are still not an issue there, possibly due to the comparatively huge space. Weed/squash overgrowth forms cover for insects, reptiles and amphibians. That’s good. Rabbits and raccoons are a real issue, but that’s good too, for rabbits and raccoons. In this less closely tended and much more spaced out garden, nature (i.e. weeds and the things that weeds shelter) seems fairly harmonious with garden produce. This year’s corn was chosen to be big corn. Winter squash, if it’s wet enough for them to survive, will then shade and cool the ground. Field peas have ‘field’ in their name for a reason. So we will see. But it is interesting about the roominess of the large-scale stand versus the pest propensities of closely-gardened concentrated beds. As usual or as ever, the main limitation of gardening is available labor.
Meanwhile, late summer field peas and pole beans in Karen’s raised beds. The foreground is heirloom “Polecat” bean.
Purple shiso, a delicately astringent mint relative.
Gardens are of the insects, by the insects, for the insects, so insects shall not perish from the earth. We surely must battle select insect pests to get our share of what we planted, and as Abraham Lincoln well knew, you can fool some of the insects some of the time, though victory over all of the insects all of the time is not in the cards. Insofar as there is an answer to bug problems, part of the answer is to draw in even more insects, because many of them eat each other—efficiently.
A mantis preying in the rain on September 1. No days off.
A tussock moth caterpillar crawling along the back of a plastic lawn chair in August. Note the dense fur of neurotoxin-loaded hairs on this interesting touch-me-not creature.
Calling all insects. This is not a drill.
Meanwhile, weeds explode ungovernably, the lawn seems to need mowing every week, and yet it’s also time to restore last year’s desperate iris losses by re-digging the beds, improving the soil, disentangling the iris rhizomes, and straining out the rhizomes of Bermuda Grass. This task should be done every third year anyway, or the irises will suffer. I also like to top layer irises with ash and charcoal. The irises don’t seem to mind, while some weeds do. The soil in this bed did not drain well enough for irises in a really wet year. We’re having another really wet year now. Gardening is a process. Every allocation of labor means something else gets left to its own devices, which is how Three Stooges episodes begin. I do enjoy gardening.
Kneel and pray to the triangular rock.
The brutal realities of September gardening.
I sometimes wonder why I natter on about gardening as I do in this blog. The current plagues of the world, some of which are viral or bacterial and others secular or religious, and the well of suffering that is the earth, seem to call for more than morning glories. But reality will not take our bullshit. That does not leave us with much. No sense slinging muddy philosophical crap at nature. Nature is the real king of life and death. In all humility, here are some morning glories.
Like voices from a distant star, to borrow a Makoto Shinkai title.
It is the 28th of July and the 31st consecutive day of 90+⸰ F temperatures. The heat index, taking humidity and general oppressiveness into account, reckons most of those days equivalent to 100+⸰ F. At this moment it is said to be 98 and to feel like 110. Several other heat indexes (hottest July days ever, hottest number of days in a row, single hottest day, the most heat records broken in one month, etc.) have been recorded in tones of awe on local TV, but it is not as if that matters to plants. Plants, individually and as a kingdom, have no concept of television. Some may call that a bold claim. I’m positive plants do think. I’m not at all sure how. But the thin wash of radiation that comes off TV screens would satisfy only the most modest of plants, such as cave algae.
Piedmont Virginia, like the rest of the Piedmont south, bakes in the summer under long dry spells, suffocates in humidity, and hosts violent storms coming off the Gulf, the Atlantic, and the Monongahela. It’s a brutal, fertile, heartbreaking climate where trouble can blow in from any direction, though insects and things that eat insects seem to love it. The ancestors had to battle the July sun. They did not get to sit in a shady arbor with a bit of breeze and something chilled and bubbly. If they had thrown in the sponge on summer, none of us would be here and the Raccoon would be the dominant species on earth.
These are days of danger for the gardener. Heat stroke is not a conspiracy theory, and even incipient heat stroke can ruin your week. We pop out in the early morning and do what we can before the sun takes over. Younger gardeners can do more. Older gardeners are obliged to do less. Something I’d consider a warm-up task in October or May—some little job to finish before putting in a full day—turns into all I can do for the day, in July. The air seems hot and sticky, even syrupy. You are bitten, scratched, crawled on. There are poisons concealed in the most innocent places. Brushing against a tiny Saddleback caterpillar on the underside of a leaf (the likeliest place to find one is the out-of-view underside) is about equivalent to a hornet sting or, if you’re lucky, a really full-on sting from a red wasp. The Spiny Oak Slug is a good deal worse. The Buck Moth caterpillar, also an oak caterpillar, is just about common here and a run-in with one will put an end to the day. Sometimes in July, all that really makes sense for a gardener to do is to go inside and let the neurotoxins burn themselves out while the swelling goes down. C’est la guerre.
Saddleback Caterpillar (Wikimedia Commons). An ordinary garden inhabitant around here.
The ornamental parts of our garden are laid out with summer in mind. I hope my summer flower beds are arranged loosely enough to give the summer plants a chance of living almost as if they were wild. Some (not all) have to have an annual feeding, especially the big lilies. Feeding is done in the spring or fall. The minimum ornamental garden hand work is three main weedings a year, in the spring and fall and at the end of June, to prevent nature from reclaiming the whole thing. If the local cloudbursts, cold fronts and hurricane remnants are inadequate for water, I usually try to preserve annuals like zinnias, or dahlias, by watering. With luck a few senescent hurricanes will drift through and things will be wonderful. But if you get very much water, the weeds will erupt—something to keep in mind when playing with the water hose. Generally I regard artificial watering as a last resort. In July the last resort can arrive in about 12 hours. To sum up, the ornamental garden requires a lot of preparation to still be an ornament in July, because July is harsh.
Oriental lilies, doing well in partial shade.
A gang of Orienpets—Oriental/Trumpet crosses--doing well in full sun.
“Anaconda”, a trumpet lily, in full shade.
Hemerocallis: a double orange sport.
The daylily or Hemerocallis is not a lily, but like the lily it is a monocot, a very ancient branch of the plant kingdom. The daylily can thrive even in baked red clay soil and is fully naturalized for easy high summer bloom in Virginia. Deer love both daylilies and real lilies, and will eat them to the ground if given a chance—the post-scientific or ‘disappointing’ phase of the plant’s existence.
Both the ornamental and the vegetable garden have been showier and more productive in 2020 than ever before. This is largely because the pandemic is keeping us home. Karen now has time to go through the individual vegetable plants nearly every day, picking eggs, larvae and destructive pests off by hand. The hand-picking technique is a bit prehistoric but we can see that it works fairly well, time and energy allowing.
Karen, concerned and thoughtful, giving the local praying mantises a hand.
Extreme heat causes extreme thunderheads.
The vegetable garden has to be weeded as much as possible, of course. Even in July. If water is deficient it must be provided. And the ladybug and the mantis really are our friends, as are the wasps and every other pollinator.
Our new 2020 garden annex in early June.
Same site in the early A.M. at the end of July. The work of insects: pollination.
Tetsukabuto winter squash.
I re-read Rappaccini’s Daughter this spring, and I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 garden romance, Giacomo Rappaccini’s walled garden in Padua, secret to all but a few, is poisonous—as is his delicate and lovely daughter, envenomed by a life spent among the rarest and most toxic horticultural peculiarities. The story has legendary and mythological sources, though it’s hard to be sure Hawthorne knew all the potential sources. Back in my student days, when Hawthorne was just barely dead yet and his remains had only recently been put on display in the Old Customs House at Salem, Mass., the battle for this story was fought out mainly between stodgy old Freudian interpretations and exciting new Jungian interpretations, and there was plenty of ammunition for both sides.
Doctors and druggists ordinarily compounded with acutely poisonous medicinal plant materials in Hawthorne’s time. Herbalists’ gardens and medical gardens of biologically active plants would not have seemed entirely strange in 1844 and a secret poisonous garden is not an enormously exaggerated possibility. There would have been herbalists with plant collections in the Boston area. There were important medical gardens in Padua, whose university has been at the forefront of Western science since 1222. By romanticizing an equally poisonous secret girl, Rappaccini’s Daughter joined the tradition of desperately doomed Italian love affairs, a tradition including Shakespeare and Boccaccio and probably the Etruscans.
Padua’s Botanical Gardens in the mid-16th century (Wikimedia Commons).
Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe were both redefining the brief prose romance genre in the 1840s, and Poe was already publishing about the structural details, for instance in “The Philosophy of Composition” in Graham’s Magazine in 1846. Hawthorne’s main vision in Rappaccini’s Daughter could well have been setting a fatal Italian romance in a particularly original type of garden. When Poe says one of the best emotional prose effects is to kill a beautiful woman, we can be sure he knows what he’s talking about. It’s all very well to believe in genius, but genius without method wouldn’t be anything.
Poe’s original Gold Bug? A Dynastes rhinoceros beetle carapace found on the roof of a garden shed.
The notion that gardens can be sinister seems contrary to the main garden tropes of paradise and beauty, going back to Virgil’s Bucolics, not to mention Genesis. However, Virgil’s shepherds complain, and the Biblical Eden, with its spring-loaded snake trap and permanent punishments, is sinister to a degree. But real garden stories are more humble. They are the fleeing stories of trespassing baby rabbits who encounter Mr. Man. The best are stories like “The Little Red Hen.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5dowCyaP7I
The prize: Some of today's heirlooms.
No one in the near future is very likely to look back on 2020 as an inconsequential moment in time—not in the United States, anyway. Some of my suspicions about the world of the future are on display in the third edition of The Adventures of Reese Macaque, P.I. and its ongoing sequel, The Casebook of Reese Macaque, P.I. But before turning to that topic, I would like to mention something more important: Karen’s and my 49th Anniversary last week.
One of my favorite pictures of Karen. We started dating in the tenth grade.
Back now to literary news: another winkle has washed up on the beach. There is now a 3rd Edition of The Adventures of Reese Macaque, P.I. I found some glaring imperfections in the second edition, unsurprisingly. Also, the increasingly detailed features of the world of Macaque in the sequel, The Casebook of Reese Macaque, P.I., made textual reconciliation in the Adventures necessary.
The Casebook of Reese Macaque, P.I. is now represented on Kindle by two finished stories: a tidied-up new version of “President Nero’s Golden Palace” and the all-new “Two Terrible Weeks in Tedboro,” a sideshow so dryly funny that readers will wish they could be there now. But no hurry. We will all get to Texas soon enough, in God’s good time.
“Two Terrible Weeks in Tedboro” incorporates a good deal of backstory for the world of P.I. Macaque in the Adventures and Casebook, and it’s a little eerie to watch parallels forming in real life. I would have supposed only nonfiction writers get this much reality. Fortunately, the world of P.I. Macaque is in some ways not as disconcerting as the world of the present.
The Adventures of Reese Macaque, P.I. needed historical underpinnings to clear up how the post-Federal world got the way Reese finds it. I would never have realized this myself. My coauthor Ted worked more on this point than I did.
Composition is a ghostly business. The composer is in many ways not unlike a phantom, and the composed world is entirely made of shadows. Rather than trying to describe how that works, I’d just recommend watching or rewatching Carl Laemmle’s 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera. The patent for creation is almost all in there. The parts that aren’t covered, and much else, can just as easily be found in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film, Vampyr.
But back to the Adventures and the Casebook—in the first place the world of the North American Exarchate circa 2400 C.E. is not post-apocalyptic. A full-on apocalypse (thermonuclear annihilation for instance, or something like that) would be too definitive to yield up the world of Macaque. However, things more in the Mommsen-Gibbon-Carlyle-Toynbee-Hobsbawm line, a coherent historical theory of the fall of the Federal Empire and the rise of the North American Exarchate, would be too advanced for fiction. Ted and I, as we conjured up the world of Macaque, weren’t looking for a theory—just for some explanations.
After we put theory and apocalypse aside, the most self-evident remaining list of likely causes for the fall of the Federal Empire were individually more trivial—things that would rock society to its foundations, force a belch out of it and then be digested. In the Macaque series, we’re positing—or glancing back at—four centuries of unexplained history. A drowned coastline and a few economic crises is not enough to collapse a world-empire like Federal America. It just isn’t.
So, like a gamer sorting playing cards, Ted put some options aside and collected others into a really great losing hand. In the world of Reese Macaque, it was no one thing that slew the Empire; it was all the things. And very stupid things they were. I suppose few of our Macaquian conversations were very memorable, but this is my chance to say to Ted, I was listening carefully.
Piranesi’s quaint human figures.
There’s a lot of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall lurking in the background of the Macaque stories, like the quaint human figures in Piranesi’s Roman prints. A greater influence generally, in this case, is John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium Trilogy.
John Julius Cooper, 2nd Viscount Norwich (15 September 1929 – 1 June 2018) (Source: Wikipedia).
One of the tremendously fun things about Norwich’s three-volume history of Byzantium is the sheer smallness, and often the silliness, of the vast ocean of real-world minutiae in which the Eastern Roman Empire floundered for so many centuries before finally drowning. While Gibbon practically viewed Byzantine history as a volumes-long crime story, the point of Norwich’s history is not Byzantium’s crimes; rather, to me his larger point seems to be the stark reality of a “tide in the affairs of men”, and the blunt fact that governments unable to swim in those tides will drown forthwith.
The polities and dukedoms of the American Exarchate that Macaque knows—Cascadia, Tenn-O-Tucky, the Grain Republic, the Wisconsin Economic Zone, Carolina, Dixie, New Virginia, Texas, California, the rump Federal Territories and so many others, large and small—are the fruit of Byzantium in a way. Politically and culturally this is the sort of thing history’s ‘Byzantiums’ tend to produce. No sense panicking about it—but we might all be a trifle better off if, like Reese, we still had our tails!
The blog posts I’ve been writing this spring are a primitive narrative of garden preparation and planting, a spring ritual which seems to come simultaneously with garden cleanup. This post finishes the sequence. Gradually the bits and pieces come together. The new front garden gate is finished.
Imprecise but functional
Some nooks and crannies are beginning to come together.
The side garden is constantly mutating.
I was reminded, reading back a few posts, that we lost a lot of irises last fall. Heavy rain was the culprit. The surviving irises are mainly familiar heirloom varieties but many of the expensive modern irises were rescued and will get another chance.
It was an eventful two years, but this rhizome finally got to bloom.
I can’t bring myself to say much about the world beyond the garden, though I feel we are watching a change as profound as any of us have ever seen. I can’t say I’m surprised, after forty years of historical writing. At the moment I am just not sure what to say. I fear I may be turning into an old bore, just repeating that my novel Macaque was always serious. As for us, our fate is partly up to others, and I hate that feeling. A philosopher might say the world always seems to be ending and of course in some ways it always is.
A lavender mood. With orange fur.
Dutch irises voting to be part of reality en masse.
I think most Old Age and New Age gardeners would agree that it’s good to talk to your plants, or at least inevitable. Opinions might vary about the plants talking back, but I have seen it before. It’s not the commonest thing, but it is not entirely unknown.
But I won’t go on and on about iris-talk.
Unlike René Magritte’s "Ceci n’est pas une pipe," this really is a cement owl.
There are other things to look at in the garden, such as saxifrage, also known as rockfoil.
And this rose-breasted grosbeak, which was desperate to be photographed.
“Blue McQuary” heirloom woad among the daylilies.
I don’t want to end this post without mentioning woad. Woad is available from specialty seed suppliers. The ancient Britons must have grown it by the ton, to dye with and to paint themselves blue. A couple of years ago I grew a sizable tub of woad, but in the end the rigors of actually extracting the dye kept me from painting myself. By the time I had my woad it no longer seemed worth the trouble, and possibly it never was. But I had a new respect for the industry of the ancients who made this stuff. We sort of owe it all to them. Anyway, woad escapes. It is a friendly, long-blooming volunteer and it should have its place in any Belgian or Pictish flower border, at least for old times’ sake and to keep the ancient Romans on their toes.
The Treachery of Images, 1929, by Belgian artist Réne Magritte.
After temperatures in the 80s Fahrenheit, a couple of nights ago it snowed at the higher elevations while we received over three inches of rain in two days. I find this fascinating. Why? Because I’m stuck under it. This is all the weather I have. Animals and plants of course live out in it the whole time, so to a squirrel or a tree this is not so much weather as it is reality.
Snow on the Blue Ridge, April 15, 2020.
The conical hill in the center right of the photo above is Buck Mountain. The ridge in back is Bear Den Mountain. Our view of sunset on the Summer Solstice is along that ridge. My son Ted and I, several years ago, used an actual solstice sunset to calibrate the first scientific device either of us had ever actually built, a solstice-pointer with an extremely precise heel stone. We did not invent this. We used a proven and reliable public-domain design for it.
It’s a little unpolished, but it absolutely works!
In our upland garden, the roses and bearded irises are thinking about blooming simultaneously, which is two weeks early for both of them. The 80-degree days set their clocks off. They have to bloom. And yet, despite the unseasonable cold, even Mother Nature cannot fool lilacs. When the lilacs bud out, there is not going to be another frost after that. No idea how the lilacs know. We ourselves only know this local lore because of generations of observation passed down as a legacy that once actually meant something when people around here mostly lived by farming. Back in the day.
And yet the tulips are still at their peak.
Wild Tulipa clusiana.
Why an early wild tulip would bloom at the same time as a Chinese peony is something to ask the lilacs about.
.Just above, I remarked that some roses were contemplating bloom. Don’t know why I said that; the yellow Banksia wild rose along our abandoned lane is one huge puff of bloom. It usually blooms around May Day so it too is a couple of weeks early.
Yellow “Lady Banks” Rose.
Banksia, a native of Western and Central China, has been cultivated there for many hundreds of years or even longer. The wild form is a single with five petals per bloom, and the fragrant cultivated version is a double, as the picture shows. The English botanist J. D. Parks purchased the yellow Lady Banks rose in a nursery in China in 1824 and brought it back to Europe aboard the ship Lowther Castle, part of a celebrated haul of Chinese garden plants, shrubs and trees. Lady Banks falls somewhere between shrub and small tree, a formidable plant.
The least demanding rose I know of.
Bridalwreath Spirea (Spirea prunifolia) complements Lady Banks.
Along the abandoned lane.
Gardening is delving and toting, transforming our lives into Weed Bug Hell and living out God’s notorious warning, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” We did not really need God to tell us that; our grandfathers told us that much, as they heard from their grandfathers and the grandfathers before them. There is a long tradition of comparing gardens and Edens and using gardens as metaphors for divine encounters, but to those who actually make gardens, Jeremiah 12:2 is actually more like it: “Thou hast planted them, yea, they have taken root: they grow, yea, they bring forth fruit: thou art near in their mouth, and far from their reins.” Of course Jeremiah was having a Jeremiad and speaking of the wicked specifically, not plants; “Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1). But the gardener who has knuckled at Ragweed in the mud "knoweth" the answer and finds weeds wicked. Why are weeds wicked? Because they interfere with our Paradise, when all we really want is to let our tulips speak for us.
Oh were my tulips to speak!
In my last blog I mentioned the fight to keep nature from taking the garden back, and how rapidly weeds and weather overtake normal garden maintenance tasks, adding things gardeners must suddenly do to the other things the gardener was already doing. The sudden double-shot of work in late March and early April ultimately discourages more than a few home gardeners, or leads to hiring garden professionals to do the whole fun part.
Temperate Zone gardens change fast. The seasons can turn surprisingly rapidly. In winter the ground is a mixture of near-freezing mud and dead leaves and sticks. Then the hibernating winter soil, full of turgid roots and sleeping insects and larvae, changes to greasy spring soil exhaling its winter rot. The spring degassing is accompanied by a fantastic explosion of weeds in the disturbed soil of the garden. Weeds love disturbed soil. They must be pulled for both aesthetic and cultivation purposes, as competitors against the plants of our own choice.
Treena pointing out a rose bed weed explosion.
Weed explosions are caused by the creation of the bed itself. Weeds could be defined as wild plants that love freshly disturbed soil. The shallowness of weeds—both biological and intellectual—is the key to fighting the spring weed onslaught. But resistance is not victory. All other things being equal, the size of a garden is determined—brutally fixed—by the amount of weeding and maintenance you can do, or afford to have done for you. We still enlarge the garden every year, moving fence sections as we go to keep the deer out, but the limit of what Karen and I can realistically hope to take care of is somewhat close to hand.
Some deer—three members of a herd of ten, spread out along the edge of the woods.
Weeds and weather transitions aside, the structure of the ground itself—not just the surface of a few flowerbeds, but the topology, the structure of the subsoil, even geology itself, not to mention the question of water, matter a lot. The bedding itself, as garden soil, has liquidity and wants to obey water and gravity and migrate downhill. Keeping the soil from leaching out or migrating away is therefore necessary, and that is the reason for the hardscaping. Hardscaping also opens up the temptation to decorate. I prefer to decorate with stone, but tiling and paving also make weeding and cultivation easier—easier to do and easier to plan—so our garden, which includes slopes, seems to be fighting to climb up into raised beds and terraces.
The earliest gardens were human attempts to get something to eat. The cultivars in those gardens began as weeds. We hear that Paradise was tended. Ornamentation soon followed. Later the Babylonians hung their garden, making the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World list. It must have been spectacular. Gardens seem to have become overtly metaphorical—living and growing handcrafted metaphors for nature—very long ago. Metaphorical gardens abound in painting and verse. Why does nature need any such translation into metaphor? Some of the most aesthetically gratifying gardens are the most naturalistic—think of the Japanese garden and the Romantic garden.
But then there are Continental gardens, knot gardens, shrubberies and formalized beds, Dutch gardening, Versailles. Patterned gardens have been called metaphors for the conquest of nature. They could also be seen as humorous gardens, gardens designed to make you smile; or scientific gardens, designed to elevate landscaping to architecture and the mathematical. It is an awful lot of cost and work. Why do we do it?
Do we even have any hints about the answer to that? The best I can come up with is a parallel comparison. In our humanity we struggle high and low to make experience itself metaphorical. Poetry, song and story, music, sculpture and painting, the arts and sciences in general, are how we re-represent our physical presence in the world and our incidents and involvements large and small, whether with people or with plants and insects, to ourselves and others. We have to have these metaphorical structures. There is probably no one reason why.
Yesterday was wet, windy and chill. Despite the raw and emphatic weather, the redbuds reached full bloom, blooming directly from the bark as well as the limbs.
We don’t see this every year.
A couple of days ago I took a needed break from all the planned or suddenly necessary work and did something unnecessary for fun—recovering old shed foundations.
The skeleton shed and old worn-out gates.
The right side of the partly dismantled shed in the photo above had an animal stall at the back. This was dug into the slope and lined with big pieces of cut granite and some marble, topped off with stuccoed brick. I find this a truly odd use for such decent-sized pieces of cut stone, but all this was built by a construction contractor with lots of tag ends and leftovers to use up, an awfully long time ago.
Mortared brick and stucco over cut slab granite.
Some delicate teasing with a crowbar and a ten-pound sledgehammer enabled the stones to be eased out.
Cut granite, precious brick rubble, and even a beveled and polished piece of white marble labeled 90.
When I eventually finish uprooting the foundation on the in-ground side of the skeleton shed, there will be five times as much rubble and cut stone as the photo shows, and I hope for more marble.
I don’t know why the shed was built in this way but I like the legacy. These are the actual stones that the builders rejected, as sung in the Psalms and referenced in passing by Mark, Judy Collins and The Byrds among others, and many a corner will they make, freed to live again in the sun and the wind and the rain.
I’ve been blogging for a few years now with a seasonal emphasis and not very much consideration of longer spans of time. Recently, while shoving a wheelbarrow along, I noticed how large the trees are becoming on the little ridge behind our garden. It has taken years. Perhaps I could learn how to triangulate and figure out just how much higher they are than when we moved here 22 years ago. But I’m too busy for anything that intellectual.
Winter is the time for hardscaping in the garden. But tasks involving stock and stone take a lot of time, and have stages, and very seldom seem to be finished when spring arrives and the weeds pour out. The ground has to be prepared for planting in the vegetable garden and annual beds. The lily beds, roses and irises have to be cleared and encouraged. When it’s time to clear the beds of weeds and rake the winter debris out, the job can’t be put off or you’ll soon have a nightmare on your hands.
Many people who sort of want to garden are knocked out of the racket altogether by the inevitable conflux of spring work. I regularly stop and run my muddy fingers through my sweat-dripping hair and ask if what I go through is really worth it or not. But life itself is mostly a bargain. You can fill in the blanks in the following sentence in countless ways: “If you want to have _____ then you have to _____.” I find that I do want irises and lilies. To keep us working for delayed gratifications, a garden needs all-season reminders of why we do it. Because, believe me, I wake up stiff and sore every day. Today, March 23, as I write this, it is cold again and raining, so I’m only going to go out once and take a few pictures.
Camellia “Black Prince”— A much deeper red than this back-lit snapshot shows.
And yet, so nice I photographed it twice. Note weeds in foreground.
Returning tulips and returning weeds -- Weeds about to be pulled.
Nature is generous—everybody gets weeds. Weeds are there to remind us that gardening is contrary to the inclinations of nature. Of course some people like weeding. It is a mindful task requiring concentration, dexterity and thoroughness. There are tools to help. Weeding is also an excellent way to appreciate the loveliness and vegetal interest of so many of the weeds themselves. Weeding is one of the more Zen activities in gardening. Don’t worry about wiping the weeds out. You’ll be seeing them again.
The background in the tulip photo above shows three of our worst Central Virginia weeds: spindleshanks, grannyspackle, and plaguewort. Faintly visible in the upper right corner of the photo is a Scotch thistle, a noxious weed in most contexts. I think it might even be illegal to grow in Washington State. But butterflies love it and I generally allow one to survive so I can look at it eye to eye in summer when they grow to be my height.
However, I digress. This blog post was intended to be about work in the garden, especially the confluence of hardscaping and early spring garden bed prep. I finished some of the winter hardscaping, for instance the finished corner in the photo below. Some of the winter hardscaping is still desperately underway. I say desperately, because the time available shrinks in the face of pruning and weeding demands that cannot be put off.
A finished corner.
An unfinished gate is just an eyesore.
Gates and fences are a huge source of hardscaping work. The symbolic visual value of gates is a major thing not always taken seriously enough, but far more vital in Central Virginia is the fence, because we are overrun with deer. Not the little deer of Miyajima and Nara, but the big whitetail deer of Hell, which will eat ornamentals and gardens until there is nothing left. Deer live in our yard, herds of up to eleven or twelve at a time seasonally, and they would wipe our entire garden out in a day if there were no fence. We love the deer, but a deer fence is vital.
There are plants that deer won’t eat, a longish list including daffodils, narcissus, spirea, and peonies. A couple of days ago I planted a new peony bed, which looks small but required the removal of three wheelbarrows of dirt to accommodate five promising new peonies, a Christmas gift from Alex and family that just arrived from White Flowers Farm.
Peony root, “Eden’s Perfume”, sitting in a five-gallon bucket waiting to be planted.
In addition to flowers, we’ve got a vegetable garden which we started in 2014 and have added to every year since. This will be our seventh year tending the raised beds of our vegetable garden. The food value, in quality and volume, has been phenomenal. We still have a few squash and a good number of sweet potatoes that we harvested last September and October sitting on the shelves, and have not quite wiped out the tomatoes Karen froze last summer. We also have one jar of black raspberry preserves left, and it is refreshing to think the raspberry bushes will be fruiting again in only six to eight more weeks. And we are harvesting now, collards and kale planted last October.
Karen planting onions.
Siberian kale—so sweetly flavorful, and dig the cool red stems!
The vegetable garden is clearly the most work, compared to ornamental gardening. It’s a really good feeling to go out in the wet, windy chills of March and collect succulent and mouth-watering things and bring them into the house and eat them. To really make the truck garden yield up its produce, you need to have a dedicated gardener, and the master (mistress?) of this garden is Karen.
Karen saying “Don’t take my picture.”
I can’t speak for Karen, but the only possible way I’ve found to garden, taking into account all my natural limitations, is to do several things at once. If I set out to do any one thing, I will not actually finish unless it’s a very small thing indeed. The method that works for me involves staging the work of the season as sets of very large tasks to be nibbled at for days, weeks or even months.
Planned work, such as garden enlargements, rock features, paving and new flower beds, take up the most time and thought. These are the schemes one lies in bed thinking about at night, and they cause back-bending amounts of digging, hewing and carrying. Scheme-work has to be set aside regularly for the essential and the timely work that absolutely has to be done, first and in place of other tasks, to prevent nature from taking the garden back.
Then there is a particularly recherché category of work, generally neglected in the garden literature: managing the material consequences of one's own efforts. Pulled weeds have to be piled on the mulch heap, dirt on the dirt heap, scattered tools and implements have to be collected, things have to be stored. There may be transplants awaiting reburial, extra rocks set aside that will never walk to a better place by themselves, plant supports stacked “out of the way” in November that are now “in the way” in March. There is no convenient time for this sort of little task. Indeed the little tasks outweigh the huge tasks. Half a bucket of decayed saprolite—the chemically weathered rock working its way up from the subsoil—more usually defined as some kind of rock that lives in the local dirt—now there’s an easy bucket to set aside. Then it has to be moved again. Somehow, hopping buckets and barrows, tools and debris across the work site turns out to be most of what gardening is, physically.
As for me, I’m in it for the rocks.
The last crocuses of spring.
I am delighted to share my news that the first story in The Casebook of Reese Macaque, PI, the sequel to my sci-fi detective fantasy, The Adventures of Reese Macaque, Private Investigator, is now up on Amazon Kindle.
The Macaque tales are science fiction detective stories. Detective stories are generally tales of manners. A science fiction detective story is about social manners in a future world. In the case of this story, the society in question is descended from ours.
The first collection of Macaque detective stories took several years to write. From the first I had no doubt that the Macaque stories were a fantasy, specifically a nonsense fantasy not unrelated to Edward Lear’s The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round the World or John Collier’s His Monkey Wife, which was first published in 1930 and is still in print. Of course nonsense is a very serious business and I cannot emphasize that enough.
It took some time before I realized that Macaque was science fiction as well. At first the world of Reese Macaque seemed unlikely to be an accurate or literal description of the future, though it certainly felt like a possible one. But eventually I began to suspect that these little tales of mystery and detection were set in a more-than-probable future world—a world we may in fact be hard pressed to avoid. Macaque seems to be on the road to actuality after all.
I must thank Rhesus A. Macaque’s co-creator, my son Edward. In an act of imagination, or maybe just mundane psychic prescience, Edward envisioned and began to flesh out the world of Reese Macaque. Ted and I are its first citizens and in the years to come Macaque’s world may seem less like fantasy.
Click here to access The Adventures of Reese Macaque, Private Investigator on amazon.com.
Click here to access Reese's newest adventure, President Nero's Golden Palace.
In my last blog post, I described the beginning of another garden in an old field in Covesville. Squash and corn promptly sprouted.
Corn: Stage 1
To a garden, dirt, heat and rain are serious matters. Heat and humidity drive cycles of sometimes-violent electrical storms. The amount of water they dump is unpredictable, from a sprinkle to a “frog drownder”, as we used to call them. Drought and sudden flood are serious threats, along with insects and plant disease. We plant a variety of vegetables in our garden. Every year we lose a few varieties. Suppose a person lived on what they grew—what would loss of a year’s crop entail? It’s something to think about. As I mentioned in my last post, the new garden has helped me understand Rockfish, my own book, better.
The results of the new field garden continue to be interesting. I assumed the germination rate would be low. It’s not. Don and I planted this garden as an afterthought; we’d both long since started our usual gardens and did not plant this field until the end of June/beginning of July. At the time of writing July is drawing to a close and everything is up. The germination rate was 90%. The new plants are racing to catch up with the season. There have been plenty of thunderstorms and the clay field soil drains very slowly. So far, water has not been a problem in the field.
Corn: Stage 2
A long row of pumpkins and gourds in a sea of healthy weeds
One thing is clear: vegetables love this soil, stony clay or not. As the photos show, weeds also thrill to this disturbed soil. To keep a field this size weed-free without using poisons would require countless hours of hoeing, and we don’t have the time. Don and I each have another garden to tend. So we have to tolerate some weeds, cut the weeds back as time permits, and reflect again on the sheer amount of hard manual labor required by just one field—really, just part of one field, since the tilled area is less than half an acre and only a quarter of the entire field. To tend several acres like this, as a Rockfish farmer would have done historically, would have required all the daylight hours available, even with the assistance of draft animals and a couple of grown men to help. Old-fashioned non-toxic farming was not, and is not now, a job for a lazy person. The commitment required to produce the old 19th-century results would have been near absolute.
“I Pay for All” (Wikipedia Commons)
Vegetable gardening is interesting and fun, but my first love is flower gardening. Flowers are easier. Diseases, predators, water, sunlight, temperature take their toll, but we aren’t asking very much from flowers, compared to vegetables. The flower gardener is asking only for a view. The view can be spectacular; the big species lilies we grow are floral dreadnaughts, ships of the line loaded with pollen, dripping with scented fluids, hanging out in groves splendid with insect-attracting colors.
A tuxedo wasp investigating an oriental lily
A vegetable garden particularly singles out edible plants for food production. Leaf-eating beetles and bugs also love exactly that kind of plant. Many garden florals have not been altered to the same degree as vegetables have been by breeding. With obvious exceptions like roses, florals are more tolerant of their surroundings and less likely to be skinned by insects. Just for the interest of the thing, one would ideally want both kinds of gardens.
Sun, heat and humidity, soil, rain and night
There are no simple ingredients in a garden. Everything that comes into the visible world is a phenomenon from an invisible world, where our deliberate interventions are like hammer blows on a Swiss watch as we single out particular garden plants. The weeds wait in the background, clustering around the periphery, looking in through the fence, watching us “fix the watch.” At least that’s what it feels like for me.
Ripeness is all
My last post, with its afterthoughts on Rockfish, led me to some reflections on another of my novels, The Southern Skylark.
The Southern Skylark uses the picaresque formula of late 18th century novels, where a string of absurd and ironic episodes leads to a questionable moral of some kind at the end. My narrator, Mr. Hingely, who provides the novel's point of view, is a relentlessly British gentleman, educated, not rich, but well enough off to turn himself loose in the world, and is enamoured of the Romantic poets. He comes to America by mischance in the 1830s and immediately discovers 19th-century American slavery. He responds with disgust, curiosity and confusion. Even as a kind of early tourist, he is inescapably morally entrapped by even incidental contact with the sheer evil of the slave system.
Stories about wealth seem most often framed from above, the point of view being that of the wealthy, or from below, the poorer ranks of society. It may be that telling a story from the poverty perspective is generally easier for writers, for whom the topic hits close to the mark. The choice of an extremely simple novel form, told from a middling point of view by a single narrator, coming from outside the culture, seemed best for approaching race and slavery, two of the most radioactive subjects in American culture.
The episodic novels of the late 18th century were comedies, even when the hero was hung at the end. The Southern Skylark borrows from that tradition. It’s a comedy, albeit a serious one. Other inspirations include Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the comic stories of Charles Farrar Browne writing as Artemus Ward, and not least Edgar Allen Poe.
Oddity lends itself to humor, and the sheer oddness of Virginia in the 1830s is not easy to exaggerate. Virginia in the last heyday of slavery was technologically and scientifically little more developed than ancient Rome in many ways, despite the recent introduction of steam power from Great Britain. The match had just been invented, which made cigars much easier to smoke, but matches had to be imported. The society of the slaveholders was content with a technological and intellectual culture not much more subtle or advanced than the culture of the Caesars. The 19th Century had gunpowder, but the ancient Romans had better civil engineering, architecture and plumbing.
It seems that most slaveholders, slaves and non-slaveholders caught in the web of post-colonial Virginia civilization may well have been inured to the harshness of the slave system. They were no more self-reflexive generally than people are today in our civilization. Every class of person—slaves, slaveholders, family farmers, tenants, governors, doctors and lawyers—was built into the institutional wall. Tremendous imagination was necessary to escape the limitations of the age.
The intelligent citizens of Virginia in the 1830s knew that a society whose wealth was built on slavery could be compared to the needle of a precipice—no way off but down. Theirs was a wholly anachronistic world where flashes of medievalism seemed almost like progress, a horrific wonderland whose citizens still keenly felt the sense of an American destiny passed down just a generation before from the Founding Fathers. In 2019 we are still surrounded by the American rhetoric of this world, with its paradoxes of liberty and subjection. In particular, we are still living its race rhetoric. This needs to be written about, and thus The Southern Skylark.
Mr. Hingely’s Romantic Poets fell in well with this world, where individuals were sometimes forced to choose between irony or insanity, or perhaps inherited both. The poetry of Keats, Shelley and Byron offered a dream of release from the physical, the mundane and the laws of mankind. Likewise, emotion and imagination were balm for the slaveholder’s soul. The native Southern literature of the period was even soppier and more hysterically romantic than the nearest British or European examples.
The familiar pangs of the human emotions have probably never changed. They go all the way back. Emotions are always modern. However, in writing about the past, I try to recognize that the “feelings” of the people of the past were not exactly the same as ours. Feelings are not the same thing as emotions; human feelings are partly built up from social understandings, and include a mélange of routine expectations peculiar to time and place and tribe. This should be an obvious point.
The subjectivity of bygone historical time is fairly impossible to capture. Nonetheless, there are splendid reasons to try. People are still being killed today by the cultural aftermath of American slavery. There are things we need to know. An enormous amount of primary material from 1830s Virginia exists, especially newspapers. Over the last century and a half, generations of scholars have steadily produced history and interpretation of the economics and politics of the era. The Southern Skylark offers a novelist's attempt to understand and interpret.
My last post focused more or less on the sheer hard work of gardening. Summer in Central Virginia is normally hot and humid. The temperature easily reaches the high 90s F and feels ten degrees hotter; it's roughly as humid as a jungle. By 10 A.M. the ironies of dehydration while soaking wet start to combine with the odds of sunstroke. My new cement steps, pictured below, reveal only slow progress.
A Project: Early Crude Stage
The bottom line about work in an outdoor space is that sometimes you just have to let it go. You can take a few minutes off and notice the results of last year’s work instead.
Last Year’s Work
Phlox planted last year
This year’s exceptional display of lilies reminded me of an old World War One song I haven’t heard in ages: “I’d Like to See the Kaiser with a Lily in His Hand.” The refrain goes:
I’d like to see all mothers free from sorrow
I’d like to see poor Belgium free from pain
I’d like to see this cruel conflict ended
I’d like to see my Daddy once again
I’d like to see the Yankees win this battle
I’d like to see France get back her promised land
I’d like to see this whole big world United
And I’d like to see the Kaiser with a lily in his hand.
A stand of Orienpets
Lilies Can Be Intoxicating
I could blog living-color lily pictures for the next hour but I won’t. Instead I’ll doggedly revert to the subject of work. Never have I worked as much, as hard or as long as I have since retirement. The relaxed, goal-free, carefully rationed attention span of my pre-retirement career seems like a distant dream to me now.
In retirement I have understood some things about work that I never understood before:
I am at an age where I have nothing to prove.
No world record or even personal best needs establishing.
I could spend all day reading in my hammock under a tree, and that would be fine.
I can’t free mothers from sorrow, end cruel conflict, unite this whole big world, or fix anything, even for the people closest to me.
And it isn’t the Kaiser’s fault either. That is just how it is.
Tiger Lilies, a Wild Species, Have a Modest Charm but Somehow Still Feel Splendid
Some old work habits die hard. My main pre-retirement work, professional and amateur, has always been writing. Friends and relatives seem reluctant to ask why every serious project takes me ten or twenty years. Maybe they’re afraid I’ll quote Ruskin, and nobody wants that. I don’t want that either. I wouldn’t quote Ruskin. I long ago knew the real answer — it was the myth of perfectibility. Perfectibility easily becomes an idée fixe, an unshakable delusion, a literal misunderstanding of the nature of effort. We might even ask why such myths manage to survive.
The effort of servicing the delusion of perfectibility, however, has a valuable unintended effect. Perfectionism, always misplaced, still causes time to pass and time is an actual experience — and time is not an experience that can be rushed.
For instance, consider Rockfish, my longest book to date. Rockfish was repeatedly finished, and finally refinished in a second edition 250 pages shorter than the first edition, with all-new parts, as recently as last year. The two editions are different; the first edition was 800 pages long, languid, with concision sacrificed to flow. While I've long felt that concision is one of the most valuable attributes a piece of writing can have, an expansive sense of flow seemed appropriate for a book spanning approximately 250 years. I believe length was a fine choice. But the haunting sense that Rockfish was too long never left me and eventually I couldn’t resist the temptation to cut 250 pages out of it.
The second edition of Rockfish is accordingly action-packed, with incident piling on incident. Long transitions are gone. Dramas accrue fast enough to stack up. It’s a better book now for most adult readers. But nothing is perfect. In a book eleven generations long, nearly everyone dies. Begats and deaths come faster than in the first edition. The attention paid to religion also stands out more in the second edition, but religion was always somehow deeply important to the people of Rockfish, and they struggled creatively with it.
Maybe that’s appropriate, because Rockfish is in part a war novel -- although Rockfish is also, maybe above all, a story about generations of farmers. My personal experiences as a gardener began in elementary school but I have never been a farmer. Farming and gardening are different things. Rockfish draws this distinction throughout, but my personal experience of the stony red dirt farming Rockfish knew so well has been limited.
Reclaiming a field
This summer red dirt farming feels less remote than it had been. A few weeks ago my cousin Don and I started field-gardening a piece of his Dad's bottom land in the vicinity of Covesville, inside the Rockfish world. Already I find myself thinking, “What vivid descriptions I could add to Rockfish now!” The condition of this long-farmed but nearly abandoned field is wildly different from the gardening I know. The gardening I know is crafty, with hand-tailored soil drained by raised beds. The field in Covesville is red clay, which tends to form clods, and still spits up quartz rocks despite who knows how many years of plowing. This soil is not the fungal well-wormed earth of garden beds; it starts dry, with a guaranteed low germination rate. Only the hardiest squash, cucumber, okra, black-eyed peas, pumpkins, gourds and corn are going to sprout and survive. As of now we have no way to water this field. We are planting in 18th-19th century conditions -- except for the tractor. Either it will rain enough or everything will die, and that is the way things are.
Cousin Don in the background
Don and I look forward to the results with the gravest interest. I see it as an experiment, but this field has produced before. It is bottom land beside a creek, and in the bygone Rockfish centuries farmers called it good soil. Before that, Native Americans had the same opinion. The area is rich in stone artifacts that make it clear that Native Americans farmed in Covesville, possibly even on this same ground. Cropping this kind of dirt is how the ancestors survived. Still, to take a hoe to tilled earth and see it tumble rather than crumble seems odd and slightly frightening.
Of course, very likely farmers of the past worked in trepidation too — and they had a lot more at stake.
Presumably under steady cultivation, hopefully with some crop rotation, these old fields would have been considerably more friable, aerated, and manured. But after abandonment this red dirt soil quickly reverts to its original hard-packed character. This is the original dirt. We might be wary of it. It’s not as simple as organic garden dirt, collected and built up in raised or mounded beds. Digging, planting, in this dirt, one senses ancient mystery, human and non-human.
Surviving the way the Rockfish generations did is more vivid and incredible to me now than when I wrote Rockfish. In terms of crops and techniques, the old farmers were limited to plants that do well in red clay soil. The labor required to alter the dirt to better specifications was largely unavailable except to the Jeffersonian rich, who commandeered a reliable labor force to help. For red dirt family farms, there would have been very little spare time left in the year, and few spare resources.
I look back on Rockfish and wonder if I could have made that clearer. What happens when a person strikes red dirt with a hoe was one of the main things determining how the Rockfish people lived. There was nothing modern about it. The braided coexistence of mountain people with coastal colonists, with slavery, with civil war, with reconstruction and with segregation was weirdly predetermined in many ways by issues of labor and the nature of what could be produced from red clay dirt. That is easy enough be put in textbooks… but there’s still no easy way to explain what happens when a person with a hoe tackles a field of red clay.
Gary Dale Mawyer has been writing for over four decades, and to date has published four novels, Rockfish, The Southern Skylark, Exemptions, and The Adventures of Reese Macaque, P.I., as well as a biographical history, Sergeant Wolinski and the Great War, and a short story collection, Dark and Other Stories. Gary's writings draw on a wealth of history, lore and lived experience. He has a B.A. and an M.F.A. from the University of Virginia. Gary is a Central Virginia native with over 40 years of publishing and editing experience. His interests include American and Virginia history, military history, geology, hiking, travel, landscaping and gardening. He is the father of four grown children and has four grandchildren. He lives with his wife Karen and two cats in Albemarle County.
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