Gardener’s Choice

I have asked Eileen if I might share some of a lifetime of reflections upon gardening. I may or may not stick to topic.

Some of my earliest memories involve watering in my grandfather’s nursery. That nursery passed to my father. I ended up working in nurseries through college, that and ‘landscraping.’ I have to say that my breakthrough plant experiences were experiencing the spring bloom in Death Valley on my Ecology course’s spring field trip. The desert was a bloom like a Persian carpet, yet the plants themselves were inches tall due to low moisture and high heat. And the second milestone experience was the spring bloom on Trail Ridge Road, again, the flowers mere inches above the scant soil at elevation. In either case, I found myself in a vernal wonderland stretching as far as the eye can see, yet having to get down on my belly to inspect the actual carpet. We are dealing with a situation fondly referred to as ‘belly flowers’ best enjoyed lying on one’s stomach in both cases. And in each case, inspecting the single square foot under your direct gaze reveals a diverse mix of plants in various stages of maturity, of multiple heights, and attracting diverse pollinators. The collective display makes an intricate tapestry, thus the Persian carpet effect.

But I have had other experiences at elevations between the below-sea-level desert floor and the 14,000-foot pass, lots of experiential gifts of ordinary magic. The desert and mountain passes are the bookends to this library. As I reflect, my life resembles a meandering labyrinth with its occasional trips down dead ends and other somewhat surprising long runs, eventually to emerge in some transitional holding space between mazes. This describes life, bardo, life, bardo…repeat… pretty well. Now and then, there is that moment of crystal clear, lucid, pristine beauty that stops me in my tracks and takes my breath away: like a fragrant double pink cherry blossom glistening in the morning dew. Or the sound of golden aspen leaves fluttering in the autumn wind and falling to the ground.

So my experience goes back longer than I care to admit, and it stretches from very low to very high. Did I mention the crazy Japanese nurseryman I worked for during college? He would travel every year to Japan to find rare species that he would bring back. He collected bamboos, rushes, sedges, water plants, azaleas, rhododendrons, maples, junipers, pines, flowering fruit trees, and mosses. We would grow seedlings and every year line them up and select the shapes, colors, textures that he saw potential in. He would collect rocks and discarded copper wire and submit the pines to hanging rocks that impersonated winter snow’s weight to ‘bend’ the trees. He collected bamboos for the shape of the wood, or the subtle shading, or because the bamboo was black. He curated maples for their spring color, their leaf shape, their fall color, the bark’s color when the maple had lost its leaves, or the low sweeping habit that might look good over a pond filled with Koi. I did learn a lot from him that still haunts the way I see the world today. I was studying plant biochemistry in college and eventually found work there…another story altogether.

We were talking about gardening in a pandemic.

If you are like me, just about now, the seed catalogs start arriving. And evenings may consist of hunkering down to the annual re-imagination of all the possibilities and potentials of The Garden. Like the Persian carpet, it is a mix of diverse shapes, colors, textures, and lately tastes. Yes, in this rather harsh high elevation desert we live in, my palette has become the challenge of growing perennial food sources. My landscape has evolved into a foodscape. And being water challenged, we also must consider the low moisture tolerance. And having late frosts, if not snows, in the spring, and early killing frosts, if not snows, in the fall, add the challenge of getting the crop in at all. And even then, there are the varmints that tour the neighborhood looking for handouts and knowing just when you were about to harvest and helping themselves. Wow, there is a lot of life in a garden: the joy of a crunchy green bean and the despair of your corn crop harvested by a horde of squirrels.

So we begin to develop a native intelligence about The Garden. We try some new things each year, and we stick to some tried and trues ones. For instance, once you find the perfect string bean that the squirrels don’t recognize and which can take some cold in the spring and harvest before September, you may well stick with it. I also enjoy yard long oriental beans, but my success has been mixed. I grew a variety of radish that is above ground and named dragon tongue, which has nearly become a weed it seeds so freely. I happen to like haricot beans, which are also known as French Filet beans. I was once treated to fresh garbanzos done in the edamame style (roasted and drenched with sesame oil and aminos), so those are being grown for flavor. This last year, a neighborhood rat or squirrel was discovered, which had quite a field day in the patch (I have taken note). My wife loves berries, so they are well represented out in the yard. My wife loves a good salad, so we try to raise salad fixings: greens and crunchy tasty things. And we generally don’t grow what is available In abundance in the markets.   I am starting to discover the subtleties of ground cherries – a tomatillo cousin that is sweetly tart like pineapple with vanilla undertones. And there’s the rotation, keep planting to stagger the season. So it looks very much like a four-dimensional edible meadow but protected by varmint proof covers. The varmint proofing has not succeeded, but it does present a challenge instead of a free lunch. The bonus with the beans and pulses (lentils and garbanzos) is that they also fix atmospheric nitrogen and store it in the soil, so you are growing this year’s beans and next year’s fertilizer.

But about the pandemic? I discovered last year that when everyone is home all day, they begin to wonder about growing food. I suppose some of those food shortages did not help. The seed cupboards were bare. So this year, I am ordering early. I have found a variety of strawberry that I like…it is a small-fruited variety that seems to pack jumbo strawberries full flavor into a very compact package. It is what my wife and daughter refer to as flavor bombs. I could not find them in stock at all last year. It is a challenge because our season is late here, and if I order them too soon, they die of cold, and if I wait until the ground is ready here, the gardeners in temperate lands have exhausted the stock.

So the point of this meandering walk through my mind’ garden is to remind you that in a pandemic, the seed is suddenly a limited resource. I recommend you get your planning done sooner than later because the seed houses work on a first-come, first-served basis.

Whew, that is it for this month. If you sit still, and quiet down, that thump thump is the sound of falling coconuts! In future installments, we will venture into whatever happens to be alive in the garden of earthly delights. I think the word share is a gardening term. We will use this opportunity to share some of the hidden secrets revealed to me in a lifetime of plant appreciation. I think the next piece will be about the pure joy birds can show us if we provide the setting.


Plants mentioned in this article:

Acer palmatum Sango Kaku

Acen palmatum Bonfire

Juniperus chinensis var. sargentii

Pinus thunbergiana var. corticate

Bambusa ventricosa (Buddha Belly Bamboo)

Bambusa nigra

Cherry Pendula Plena Rosea

Dragon’s Tail Radish

Denver Filet Bean

Fragaria vesca Alpine Strawberry (Fraises des Bois) varieties ‘Baron Solemacher’, ‘Alexandria’, ‘Mignonette’, ‘Rugen’, and ‘Charles V’

Ground Cherry Aunt Molly

Garbanzo (buy dried organic chick peas at Natural Grocers)

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