Tag Archives: gardening

The Black Walnut

ImageThere is nothing like a tree with its seasonal shifts to work its way into the fabric of your life. The Black Walnut is a truly magnificent specimen, well over a hundred years old. It must have been a sapling, or perhaps just a nut forgotten by a squirrel, when our house was built. On the first warm day of the year, I sit on the wooden bench under its bare branches—it’s one of the last trees to leaf in spring, and one of the earliest to drop in fall—waiting for the children’s school bus to lumber up the road. My daughter jumps down the steps, backpack bumping, yelling ‘spring is here, spring is here,’ and immediately rushes to change into shorts and t-shirt. My son already has his shoes and socks off. We sit in the tree’s embrace enjoying afternoon tea and cookies, a holdover from my Irish childhood. We watch the chickadees clinging to the birdfeeders that hang from boughs in front of the kitchen window. Soon we’ll have to take them down so we don’t find our neighborhood black bear picnicking under them. No sign yet of the wren family that likes to nest in the birdhouse fixed to the deeply fissured bark of the trunk.

Our house faces south, backed by deciduous woodland where the deer lurk with evil intentions toward my flowerbeds. The entire garden is on a slope leading down from the tree line—not enough to get a good sled run, but enough to work up a sweat with a lawnmower. The Black Walnut sits in the middle of this slope, and is so conspicuous that I use it as a landmark when giving directions. Its spreading branches are an umbrella sheltering the lawn and casting a leafy shade over the kitchen windows in summer, bathing the house in a cool, green light. It’s wonderful on a hot day to lie on my back staring up through the dappled leaf-light at patches of blue sky. In winter the greenish grey limbs etched in white, stand majestically in the landscape.Image

I have an on-going love/hate relationship with the tree. As far as the branches stretch, so do the roots. They produce a toxin that is lethal to tomatoes, apples and others. If its toxin doesn’t kill plants and shrubs, its thirsty roots will. Add to that its shade shedding branches, and it doesn’t leave me much space to garden in.

Who needs a dog when you have a Black Walnut? It’s constantly shedding. Starting in late spring it sprinkles my seedling trays, set out to harden off before transplanting to the garden, with small greenish flowers and wiggly catkins. After summer storms I gather armloads of felled twigs from under its skirts. Throughout the seasons the nuthatches and woodpeckers run up and down the branches tapping away industriously and strewing chunks of moss and lichen and bark over the lawn. Well before the first frost, the leaves carpet the grass in pale yellow mounds. They are followed by wiry, foot-long, leaf stalks that don’t sit well in my compost heap. Then the nuts start falling and the garden becomes a hard-hat zone.

The walnuts form in a thick lime green, aromatic husk. As they lie on the lawn, turning it into a mine field for the unwary, they quickly rot down into a gooey, black slime, which is one of the most effective orange, brown stains I have ever encountered, impossible to wash out of socks, or off hands. I offer the kids cash rewards to pick them up in bucketfuls.

The hard-shelled nuts are supposed to be delicious. Each fall I squeeze a mound of them out of their slimy cases and set them to cure on a sunny wall. When I remember them a week or two later, the squirrels have long since made off with them. By this stage I am so sick of picking up after the tree that I don’t want to see another nut, and so, promising better results next season, I give up.

The tree is slowly dying. When the nor’easters blow I lie in bed wondering if this will be the one. A few years ago we called in arborists for estimates on trimming the branches that lean over the roof. One chap pulled up in his truck and walked around the Black Walnut shaking his head. He said the whole thing had to go. We sent him packing instead.

Eventually, the Biker for Jesus who lives down the road swung up into the branches and neatly pruned the errant limbs. The cut-up logs are waiting for my husband to make the children a wooden swing seat to hang from its sturdy limbs, and a sign for his company, aptly named, “Black Walnut.”

According to the Audubon Societies Field Guide to North American Trees the wood is ‘one of the scarcest and most coveted native hardwoods.’ Jokingly I say that when it does fall on the house we can sell the wood to mend the roof. But for better or worse, this tree is very much a part of the home we have created for ourselves.Image


Balancing Act

At this time of year my garden goes bonkers. It takes on a life of its own.IMG_4935

Just enough warmth and rain has tripped the switch on new growth, and before my eyes the landscape is transformed into an acid-hued world, dripping with fecundity (love that word). When I step out the door on a mild and misty morning it feels as though, overnight, this green beast has slithered closer to the house, threatening to wraps its tentacles around it.

I find myself waging a battle between cultivating nature, and keeping it at bay. If I don’t get out to weed the vegetable patch at least once a week, virulent native weeds soon overrun the seedlings of spring greens.IMG_4910

And yet, how many times have I knowingly allowed pop ups from my compost heap—serendipity seedlings, I call them—take root and been thrilled by the bonus mini pumpkins or wild garlic. On my morning walks I even carry a plastic bag and spoon so that I can transplant common native wildflowers into my woodland garden. My perennial beds are full of poppy seedlings and daisies that have found their niche. I tell myself I must be doing something right when they start merrily throwing the next generation around.

IMG_4892 Everywhere I turn the concept of balance screams at me. In kick boxing class the instructor dreams up challenging balance poses to strengthen our core muscles and improve our overall physical wellbeing. The latest dietary studies exhort us to eat a balanced diet. And I swear, I strive to balance the carbs and the chocolate.

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between good and evil. I just read Michael Pollan’s fascinating article in the New York Times magazine: Germs, What we can Learn from our Microbiome,  about the community of microbes that colonize our bodies, keeping our bodies functioning optimally. Contrary to what our mother’s said, sometimes it’s beneficial to get down and dirty.IMG_0332

Our lives are one big balancing act: pain versus pleasure, task versus reward, reality versus fantasy. It’s a daily struggle to maintain a middle path, not to become engulfed in one thing over another, to strike the balance.DSC_0347

How true this is in the world of the writer. You have to fall in love with your characters and plot so that you can write from the heart, yet remain detached enough so that you can cut them to ribbons if that’s what it takes. Yes, you need to make time to connect with your reading audience and interact with the writing community. But when chasing the tweet dragon gets in the way of writing, you know things are out of whack. As I tug weeds in the garden, I often think how similar the process is to editing. You want to clear away enough detritus so you can see your story grow and bloom, but you don’t want to remove all those serendipity seedlings.

How to strike that balancing? For me, the key to standing on one leg and not collapsing in a sweaty heap of giggles is to be mindful, but not obsessive. I have to focus on gentle breathing (not the shooting pain in my hip), while staying tuned in to the big picture (the pain is worth it if it makes my butt look awesome in my new shorts). Hey, no one said it was easy!





Begining of the Gardener’s Year

IMG_3320 IMG_3310So, here’s a little essay I read on National Public Radio a few years ago.

Catalog Season,

The Beginning of the  Gardener’s Year

They start arriving during the holiday season, squished in with the endless toy sale coupons, credit card bills, and the rare Christmas card. The catalog covers are bursting with wholesome goodness, though a true gardener knows the truth – you’ll never get botox tomatoes or porcelain perfect rosebuds in your garden without the use of massive amounts of toxic treats. That aside, their luscious covers stay my hand as I’m about to toss them in the recycling pile. Over the next month or two my bathroom will become the resting place for an ever-increasing pile of plant and seed catalogs. This is for strategic perusal during a moment of privacy in the manic holiday season.

By mid-January, when the deer have eaten their way through anything left sticking up out of the snow, and all hope of a shrubbery is growing dim, I get those first twinges. I feel an urge to see seed trays cluttering up the windowsills and kitchen table. I start feeling wistful for that warm place under the kitchen sink– the perfect spot for cozy, dark, moist germination. I’m feeling the drag of winter, and the hopeful swaying towards spring. Winter in the Northeast lays down heavily from January through February and into March, and then teases through April. But I’m beginning to sense the latent promise of the soil.

The catalogs are dragged out of the bathroom and piled by the couch. On brittle winter evenings, by lamplight, I start the long slow sift. Of course, it’s all about fantasy, little will actually be bought. Gardeners have to dream at this time of year: the perfect herb garden springing up amidst neat mounds of box wood and crunchy gravel, a rustic arbor overflowing with grape vines and late summer roses. Perhaps this year there’ll be a woodland bower with trickling stream and dappled shade flowers. With the back of an old envelope I go to work on the grand scheme.

Once I have perused the warty old heirloom vegetables in the organic catalogs, and the glossy offerings from the established old nurseries and fallen in love with some exotic vine from Peru that will never survive in my deer-infested garden, I pass them on to the children to cut-up for school projects. Those genetically modified tomatoes go right at the top of the food chain. In a Martha Stewart-inspired moment I have cut and pasted a rose garden full of gift tags.

I have a weakness for the cheapo catalogs, printed on wafer thin paper and bursting with special offers and 1¢ marvels. The crudely touched up photographs and the neon colors jump off the page at you. I especially love the cheesy photos of children dressed in ‘70’s outfits and sitting atop giant pumpkins with bemused smiles on their faces. I think my all-time favorite was a bonnie baby clutching a sweet pepper as big as its head with the title “Super Heavyweight Hybrid”. Some of the offerings are intriguing – a fruit cocktail tree straight out of “Willy Wonka” which bears plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots. While others are just plain scary. Surely the ‘Hairy Giant Starfish Flower” comes from outer space.

There is no such thing as too big or too sweet in the vocabulary of the people who write the copy for the vegetable and fruit catalogs. They seem to have a passion for words such as “Juicy”, “Smooth”, and “Delicious”. And then of course there are the names – “Fat “n” Sassy”, Mammoth Melting Sugar, Magnifisweet, Delectable, Phenomenal, Serendipity, Love-Me-Tender and Florida Speckled Butter. How could one not succumb? My success rate from these cheap and cheerful orders is about the same as from the much grander (and more expensive) nurseries. Which only goes to prove that I can kill cheap or expensive plants equally well.

Once I’ve reigned in my ambitions and placed my modest order all I have to do is sit back and wait for that freak 80˚ day in April when the dear UPS man will roll up in his van. Of course the garden will be untilled – a quagmire of spring mud. The tender plantlings will languish in a shady corner of my mudroom for several days. Insistent birdcalls staking claim to sections of the garden will get me out of bed at 6am. With fork in hand I’ll brave a light frost and watery sunshine to start the backbreaking work of turning over the soil in the perennial garden and the vegetable patch. Large clods of earth held together with ice crystals get turned over and left to sunbathe.

Hours later, I’ll waddle, with bent back, to the aptly named mudroom, my boots coated in a gelatinous layer. The next day, if there isn’t a late season snowstorm I’ll plant the baby leeks and get the first sowing of peas in. I’ll look down and notice that the paper I grabbed to put under my muddy boots is last season’s plant catalog.