Sunday, October 26, 2014

Walking in the Magical Garden with Mom and Dad

This piece was originally published in my column, The Magical Gardener, in today's Samhain edition of the Sunday Stew. Please be sure to head on over and read the entire edition, a delicious blend of spiritual flavors and nourishment for the soul.

Samhain is nearly here and I find myself thinking of my mom and dad more and more with each passing day. Most of my thoughts are just memories, some vivid in detail like reliving a few moments in time and others are dull, just a flash that leaves me struggling to place it in the timeline of my life. Some thoughts are directed tight at them. Daddy, you would be so proud of your grandson right now. Mommy, you would have loved this Sweet Pea (my niece). How do I make that beef stew again, Mom? I wish you could have seen that concert with me, Dad! And then there are the thoughts that are just wonderings. Would Mommy read this book? Would Daddy buy this album? The odd one that keeps creeping into my mind is if they would have loved my garden.

Both of my parents were avid gardeners. They started as summer-gardeners at our seashore home where we went from the end of school to Labor Day each year, planting tomatoes and other vegetables and tending to the flowering plants and shrubs that grew their every year. Later in life, after they divorced, my dad continued his love of gardening in the courtyard of his city apartment and my mom created a sprawling garden at her new suburban home. Both had different styles of gardening. My mom gravitated towards the English cottage style, planting herbs, roses and other flowering, healing perennial plants, informal and wild-looking. My dad, on the other hand, liked a lot of texture and depth, a more landscaped look and design, using ornamental grasses and lilies. My own garden is more like my mother’s as far as plantings but has many textures like my father’s gardens, a blend of both, just like I am.

Mommy passed away before I became an avid gardener. She gave me a few flowering shrubs when my hubby and I moved into our first home, which I planted in our small backyard and tended to lovingly because she gave them to me. After she died, I realized that caring for these shrubs made me feel closer to her. At that same time, I fell in love with herbs, all that they are, all that they do, for cooking, for magic, for healing. I planted a small herb garden and, only a few years later, I had dug up most of my backyard, pulled out every bit of grass I could, to create larger garden beds full of flowering perennials, herbs and vegetables.

My father was still here then and overjoyed at this change. When at my home for holidays or other events, he would take his pipe outside to sit among the plants and peace in my yard, constantly marveling at the transformation. He was even more pleased when I announced that I was going to school to become a Master Gardener. He had just undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor and I told him the news of my acceptance to the program as he was recovering in the hospital. He thought it was marvelous and was so excited to share in all the knowledge I would gain from it. We made plans for him to come to my house and spend the day in my garden, just spending time with me and my plants. But then, he took a turn for the worst and, just as I was starting my classes, he passed away.

So would they love my garden now? Oh, I think so. In fact, I know so. I have many of the plants they loved there – lilac, rosemary, yarrow, grasses, day lilies, and roses. It’s wild yet full of color and texture, full of sweet scents and joyful sights. Some days, as I am working among the plants and digging in the dirt, I can feel them there, peering over my shoulders, curious to see what is being planted next. Sometimes I envision them there, huddled together on the patio, discussing the garden, pointing at this or that, praising the herbs or marveling at the goldfinches nibbling the coneflowers. Sometimes I spy them from my kitchen window, strolling around the yard, my dad with one hand in his pocket and the other on his pipe clenched between his teeth, and my mother next to him, her hair caught by the breeze and her face lit up with her smile, autumn leaves floating to the ground around them. I want to walk with them for a while. I slip on my old canvas gardening shoes and head out the back door to be in the magic of that moment.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Waiting for First Frost

This piece was originally published in my column, The magical Gardener, in today's edition of the Sunday Stew. Please be sure to head on over and read the entire edition, a delicious blend of spiritual flavors and nourishment for the soul.

Autumn is settling in now. There may still yet be a few warm days on the horizon but, as each day of October passes, the chances are slimmer. It is all about clean-up now in the magical garden and time is running out. Very soon, the first frosty tendrils of winter will begin to creep through the the last of the green leaves and final flowers, the trees will be bare, and we will turn our attention inwards, take ourselves and a few plants indoors, away from the cold to dream up and plan next year’s garden. Here in my magical garden, it is time to make the final preparations for the coming winter before that frost or freeze comes knocking.

First frost should arrive almost certainly by November 1st but has been known to suddenly make an appearance here in southeastern Pennsylvania in mid-October. The next week or so will find me and the magical gardening hubby feverishly working in the yard. I will put him in charge of building up the compost pile with the spent perennials and annuals and the growing piles of fallen autumn leaves while I harvest the last of the herbs and flowers to be put up for drying. He will also be the master hole-digger so that I can sink a few container plants, small shrubs and tiny trees, pots and all, into the soil to keep them warm and protected through the winter. The goal is to keep them out of the line of biting and damaging northern winter winds. We will both tackle the job of cleaning up the patio, putting away or securing chairs, grilling paraphernalia, and assorted empty unused pots and containers. As I work on trimming back the honeysuckle, I will praise his skill with the hedge-trimmer. We will both tackle the monster that is the wisteria and hope that it is the last time until April or May.

There are the garden inhabitants to worry about too. Every bird feeder and bath needs to be scrubbed clean before it gets too cold. New suet feeders will be hung here and there around the yard for easy winter feeding for all of our feathered friends. There is a bit of bird house cleaning to do, removing old nesting materials and securing them for new winter residents. A pile or two of old branches and small wood logs will be built up at the back of our property so that small critters, low-dwelling birds, or some over-wintering pollinators will have shelter. Even the garden fairy house will be spruced up for the winter.

I will also drag the hubby to the nursery or garden center for one more shopping spree before the cold sets in. There are last-minute deals on bulbs, perennials, and garden d├ęcor to be found out there! He will follow me through the aisles, arms laden with items that I place there as I reassure him. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s all on sale. Plus, you can consider this all part of my birthday present.” (My birthday is in mid-October and I tend to celebrate it all month long!) I will pat his arm lovingly and continue to the next garden find.

With the garden ready for the coming cold, the birds and critters all tucked in, the faeries warm and cozy in their home, the herbs all hanging in beautiful fragrant bunches in the kitchen, and all of my “birthday” purchases either planted or stowed away for spring, the magical gardening hubby and I will steal the last few moments we can outdoors on the patio. He will kindle the fire of sweet-smelling wood and dried herbs in the celestial cauldron fire pit while I light a few candles and pop open a few pumpkin beers to toast to a job well done. And we will wait, together, for first frost.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Happy Little Trees

This piece was originally published in my column, The Magical Gardener, in today's edition of the Sunday Stew. Please be sure to head on over and read the entire edition, a delicious blend of spiritual flavors and nourishment for the soul.

Autumn has only just begun and here, on the east coast, we are in the midst of our first Nor’Easter of the season. Classically, a Nor’Easter can bring high winds and heavy rain or, in the winter months, snow. This storm pales in comparison to others I have experienced in my past 46 years. Yet, I still find myself periodically heading to the windows around my house to see how the trees are faring in the storm. I worry about them and do not want to see any of them injured or, worse, brought down. I cried for days when the old oak tree that stood guard in front of my house had to be taken down, after being damaged in Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy, several Nor’Easters, and, the final insult, a blow from its neighboring tree falling directly into it. If I only knew then what I know now, the grand old oak may have been saved.  But perhaps I can help others to continue to have, as Bob Ross used to call them, happy little trees.

Ensuring the long, healthy and happy life of a tree begins at the moment you decide to plant a tree. A tree should not be planted on or around your property just because it will look pretty in the fall. The local weather and soil conditions, its mature size, its proximity to a structure, and its maintenance and care requirements all must be considered first. Contact your local county cooperative extension office for a list of trees that are well-adapted for your specific location and conditions before considering the aesthetic properties you are searching for in a tree. Doing this may narrow the number of choices you have but it will save damage to the tree, your property and possibly a life down the road.

Many trees are not planted properly, leading to diseases, infestations, nutrient deficiencies and, eventually, death. You cannot just dig a hole and plop it in the ground. There is a method to planting a tree that allows for proper root, trunk and canopy growth and reduces the stress of the environment and weather on it. If it is not followed, the health and safety of the tree can, and most likely will, be compromised. Again, contact your local county extension office for information on how to do this.

Now, I am going to tell you something very important about tree planting and care, something that you must never forget. Do not volcano mulch a tree! What is volcano mulching? I know you have all seen it before in shopping centers or housing developments or even a neighbor’s front lawn. It is a horrible practice of piling inches and inches of mulch high up around and against the trunk of a tree, in what looks very much like a volcano. This can lead to improper root growth, decay and pests.  I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to go around the local shopping center pulling all the mulch away from these poor trees. I have some thoughts on why commercial landscapers practice this murderous technique but those are probably better left for another day. So please, please, I beg of you, do not volcano mulch!

An excellent habit to get into is that of inspecting your trees after storms, like Nor’Easters, hurricanes, or even powerful thunderstorms, pass through your area. Now you may not think that a branch breaking off during a storm can do much damage to the health of a tree but it can, and often does. This is the mistake I made with my own old oak. A broken branch is like an open wound. Diseases can find their way into the tree through a broken branch or a damaged trunk. Pruning or other “medical” attention may be required. Remember your friends at the extension office and ask them how best to proceed. In many cases, especially if the tree is very large or if personal safety is in question, you may need to contact a reputable tree service to address the injuries. Also, regular pruning can lessen breakage during storms as well as aid the tree in its overall health and growth.

If you live on the coast, your trees are faced with a unique issue not known to their inland friends, that of salt. Coastal storms, like hurricanes, bring salt spray on the wind and flooding surges of ocean water. Many trees on the Jersey shore were damaged during Superstorm Sandy by salt water. Salt, when in the soil, prevents the tree from taking up water and, when in the air, burns branches, needles and leaves. To lessen the damage done by salt, fresh water irrigation is required. Hose the whole tree and soil around it with fresh water thoroughly and often in the first days after the salt exposure. Now this may not be possible right after a major storm. Securing life and property is always the top priority! But when, and if, life begins to return to normal, you can turn some attention to your poor salt-laden trees.

Do not forget a little magic goes a long way. When planting a tree, hold a welcoming ritual for it. Bless it for a long, healthy and happy life. When pruning it, talk to the tree, comfort it, and let it know why. Trees are proud beings and sometimes they cannot understand why the simple human is cutting away a majestic branch. Just ask it. It will tell you! When storms are approaching, go to each tree, place your hands on it, and tell it to stand tall through the storm. I often did this for my ailing oak, calling upon deities of earth and sky to protect it and keep it from further harm, to keep it standing. It worked for the most part but finally, sadly, it became clear that it probably would not stand through another onslaught of wind, rain, ice or snow and my oak was taken down.

In true Nor’Easter fashion, the rain is slowing down now but the winds have picked up slightly. Again, I am at my windows checking the trees. They are swaying under its chilly breath. I am keeping an especially close eye on an old oak in my neighbor’s yard, one that is showing some signs of neglect. I will have to either talk to the neighbor or sneak into their yard with pruners in hand and magic in my heart. I just want happy little trees.