And yet the tulips are still at their peak.
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.
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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