Friday, June 12, 2009

A Turn in the Garden, Summer Setting In

Update, later the same day: When I wrote the posting below earlier today, I thought of mentioning one other creature, as I talked about the dogs, birds, snakes, and bees in the garden. I didn't do so, however, since we haven't actually seen that creature thus far this year, and I wanted to be scrupulously exact in my description of what I see in the garden each day this time of year.

That other creature is a box turtle. Well, that's Steve's name for it. I call it a terrapin. It's been with us some years now, and used to live in the back garden under the waterfall of rose canes I describe below.

Then the dogs found it, and we had to make a new place for it, because they were bedeviling it to death. Valentine found a way to pick it up in his mouth by hooking two sharp little teeth into the curve of the terrapin's shell. He looked ridiculous proudly displaying his turtle trophy, which is bigger than his head, and I worried about the fright it must put the poor terrapin through to find itself picked up and wagged about the yard by a dog.

So we moved it to the front of the house, under the hydrangeas and camellias. Where we hadn't yet seen it this year, causing us to fear it had died or left us . . . . Until today, that is: at lunchtime, Steve spotted it amidst the ferns and volunteer elephant ears in front of those shrubs, at the base of the birdbath, creeping along happily in the mulch. It's the same terrapin, we know, because its shell has a distinctive light stripe along one edge that tells us its identity.

And now for the posting I had written before I added the preceding update:

This time of year, the garden is my salvation. I should spend more time in it than I do. I choose my times carefully, though—usually early in the day and then when the sun is setting. I choose those interstitial times because the heat is already growing intense, and will soon set in for good here. Summer begins in earnest the second Sunday of June—and I may blog later about how I know this with such absolute certainty.

My garden is a cloister garden because it’s walled, after a fashion, with high wooden fences on the north, east, and south sides, and the house itself forming the western wall. The garden to which I’m referring here is the back garden of the house. There are also shrubs along the western side of the house, its front—camellias, azalea, mahonia, hydrangeas, forsythia, flowering quince, and roses on the fence at the street side of the house on the west, with a patch of plants between the sidewalk and the street as well, including clumps of yucca and a gingko I've coaxed from a seedling into a hearty young tree.

And along the southern walls of the house are more plants, with their own appeal at different times of the year—the two old climbing roses I described in a posting earlier in the year, a Japanese magnolia, mock orange, stands of butterfly ginger, a gnarled old rosemary plant that’s now a shrub, a sweet olive I am surprised to have nursed to tree height in our climate with its occasional bitter cold days in winter, and a large fig tree. The fig is laden with fruit right now, an early crop of which is just now ripening.

I cherish the fig because it’s an offspring of my grandmother’s fig tree, a tree she loved, since it provided fruit for preserves she ate each morning, and also because, in the final years of her life, as she became incapacitated with heart disease, it was a meditative, shady spot where she could sit outside and enjoy the garden she adored and could no longer tend. In those years, she made friends with birds and a squirrel, who became so tame he would eat from her hand as she sat under her fig tree.

My garden, the one that gives me such comfort early in the day and as evening falls, is a back garden, a garden proper, in that this is all it “does.” It’s full of plants and is enclosed—an enclosure that guards nature, as the etymology of the word “garden” suggests a garden should do.

If I could draw or take good photos, I’d share the garden with readers through those media. Words are what I do, though, so I want to share today what I see each morning when I step out into the garden, at this precious, soon-to-be-lost time of the year as early summer becomes high summer, a time when plants struggle simply to remain alive in our climate, and blooms diminish.

My first turn each morning is to the north side of the house, where we’ve made a walkway of bricks set herringbone fashion all along that side of the garden. Between the walkway and the fence on that side of the garden is a shady area planted with nandina, a fringe tree, and a volunteer mimosa that had grown into a tall tree fragrant with its puffballs of salmon-colored blossoms in summer. For some reason, the tree suddenly died two years ago, and is now regenerating from its roots. We hope to see it live again.

The side of the brick walkway that runs along the house is planted with a sea of shrubs: really; they look like a continuous green wave if one looks out of the windows on that side of the house. Some of these were already in this bed when we bought the house in the late 1990s. Most of them I’ve added.

They run from native azaleas, which bear fragrant, spicy yellow blossoms in early spring, to calycanthus (popularly called bouncing Bess in the South), fatsia and aucuba (plants I inherited from the previous owners), Virginia sweetspire, glossy abelia, and winter honeysuckle. The row ends at the west with a Japanese maple that takes my breath away when it first leafs out in spring, red on red, in the bright spring sunlight before other leaves steal its thunder.

The abelia (“that old bee bush,” my grandmother called it, though she loved it for its easy ways and sweet scent) is one of my first stops as I take my garden turns these days. The little white and pink cups of bloom are nothing to write home about visually, but the scent: an unmistakable signature of early summer here, with its sweet old-lady’s-dusting-powder undertones that attract flocks of bees (hence its name).

Along the fence side of the garden here, across from these shrubs as one walks west, is a row of white altheas—rose of Sharon, we called them when I was growing up. These are in small square beds we built into the brick when we laid it.

The blossoms amaze me. They are not the trumpet-shaped althea blooms I remember from childhood, which I still see all around the city in older gardens. They’re flatter, whorled, something like a hibiscus blossom, with a fascinating maroon-yellow center designed to call insects. I can look at them, drinking in every detail with my eyes, for minutes on end as I walk in the garden.

And at their feet, some of the tough old mint, hearty, its leaves laced with the true spearmint flavor that more epicene hybrids seem to have lost in recent years. It's perfect for iced tea. We we found the mint in this garden when we arrived in the 1990s, and have tried to tame and move it from the locations it overran in summers past. It now competes with the dogs, who find the soft dirt under the altheas, good soil we shlepped there from our compost pile, and to which we keep adding leaves each fall, a wonderful hiding place for their various treasures.

There’s also more ginger in these beds, though the jury is still out about whether it’s going to thrive here as it does on the south side of the house. In winter, the difference in temperature between the north and south side may be just enough to doom such semi-tropical plants, if they’re not sheltered to the south.

Also in the extreme east end of the bed against the house is a winter witchhazel I'm trying to grow into a small tree at the corner of the house, along with a fall-blooming clematis we've trained to grow on a trellis, which we appreciate at the hot, dry tail-end of summer when it suddenly blooms with a cloud of fragrant white blossoms when little else is in flower.

After my turn on the west side, I head into the main part of the garden, which is crisscrossed by a fieldstone path we have laid from stones we’ve harvested here and there—mostly in the Ozarks. This garden is nothing like the one we planned and originally built when we bought our house in the late ‘90s. After we’d created a garden that pleased us, one we thought beautiful, ringed with fruit trees just beginning to bear copious crops, the city came through with a new sewer line, ripping out the fruit trees, overturning all the plants.

They paid us to recreate the garden, but it hasn’t been the same since that time. For one thing, the gardeners the city paid to redo the garden heeled in the uprooted plants here and there, just to try to save them, since the city promised to do its sewer work in winter but chose to do it in summer, instead, the worst time to plant anything in the South. So for several years, we had mysterious plants we didn’t recognize coming up in places we wouldn’t have chosen to plant them, remnants of the old garden we didn't recognize in their new locations.

Hence the crisscrossing fieldstone path, with a circle in the middle: it’s our attempt to divide the ruins of our former garden into sections, where we could nurture what survived the upheaval the city created with the new sewer line, and turn the sections into mini gardens each with its unique character. (I haven’t mentioned, but the entire garden slopes downhill from the west side of the house, towards what would have been a little valley before this neighborhood was sliced into grids and sold for house sites around the beginning of the 20th century. Each of these areas has a unique topography, too, created by the lay of the land itself.)

My first stop each morning these days in this east-side garden is the gardenia at the foot of the back steps. It’s at its peak now, full of large flat ivory-white blooms, redolent with a deep, rich smell with undertones of bananas and other fruit. “That funeral bush,” my mother and her sisters used to sniff, wrinkling their noses in distaste when they smelled it, though my own specimen of it comes from their mother’s house, where I dug it from the back steps of that house as we closed the house down, sadly, a few years ago.

Behind (to the east) of the gardenia, in the center circle of the stone pathway, is a vitex just now coming into full bloom, its intensely sweet, slightly spicy fragrance with a hint of lilac competing with the gardenia in the heavy, moist morning air. A few brave roses continue to bloom even at this late date in the rose bed to the north of this, also scenting the air—ever-faithful Cramoisi Supérieur with its small crimson blooms tipped with silver, and pink Natchitoches Noisette, a “found” shrub from a cemetery in the region where my Louisiana roots lie. Arching over these to the north is the one apple tree that survived the city’s decimation of the garden, an old Southern apple, the Cullasaga, which has never borne fruit, since it needs another tree for cross-pollination, and the upheaval of the garden resulted in the death of our other two apple trees.

There’s also a smoke tree that the college at which I was teaching when my mother died gave me in memory of her, a mannerly little tree that has never grown higher than a shrub, surrounded by roses whose names we no longer know, and which we didn’t know were there until they reasserted themselves after the havoc of the sewer line. One of these I do know: it’s called Petite Pink Scotch, and grows as a groundcover in a high, rocky, dry patch on the north side, just where the garden takes a dip down towards the valley to which it points on the south and east. Like the Cullasaga, which has a family association for me, since one of my Bryson relatives in North Carolina is said to have originated this apple, the Petite Pink Scotch was found, I'm told, by a Batchelor cousin in an old abandoned garden on the Cape Fear near Wilmington, North Carolina.

I’ve also put a bed of iris and rosemary on that same rocky point, since both need good drainage and both endure the hot sun from the west that beats down in this area of the garden. They’ve done well there and look handsome even when the iris is not in bloom, surrounded as they are with pots of orange and lemon that we bring inside in winter, potted geraniums, and a statue of Francis of Assisi.

The far eastern corner of the garden is always something of a surprise to me in any season. It’s the lowest, and so the lushest, point in the garden, the point to which water drains when heavy rains send torrents down the hillside. It attracts weeds and plants that mysteriously spring up there, seeking the water that is abundant in that part of the garden.

Along the fence there we planted several years ago a wild light-pink rose from the mountains, one that grows along roadsides in the Ozarks. This grows as a shrub with graceful canes that fall down like a waterfall of fragrant, spicy blossoms in early summer.

Like any wild thing in a garden, this rose grows better than true garden plants, and we leave it to its own devices. We do trim it each summer after it blooms, since the thick mass of canes hides everything else in that part of the garden, and is prone to becoming a home for snakes, if we don’t keep an eye on it.

Behind (to the east) of this wall of rose is a pomegranate that I had been training to tree shape before the sewer line came through, but which I’m now allowing to grow as a shrub, since I was uncertain whether I could coax it back to life after it had been uprooted, and didn’t want to add to its stress by cutting it as it struggled to regain life. It’s now large and hale, and the blossoms that suddenly pop out this time of year never cease to surprise me.

In fact, they make me laugh. They are not something one would expect in any mannerly garden. They are wild beyond belief, confections of bunched orange tissue that look like something a fiesta planner would pin as decorations around banners and tables, and fiesta-goers might fasten on their clothes and in their hair before they hit the dance floor. The blooms look designed, in short, and designed by someone with unrestrained taste for whom all the normal rules of fashion don’t matter a whit.

All through this part of the garden are also patches of purple and yellow Louisiana iris that have now finished blooming, and with which the dogs are playing hell, since they have two corgi cousins (and enemy-friends) on that side of the garden, who demand constant scrutiny and loud warnings through holes in the fence. There’s also a large patch of Texas star hibiscus, a native hibiscus that tends to grow rank, with canes ten-feet high and dinner plate-sized scarlet blooms that have not yet come out.

To the east, as one turns along the walkway, there are two pear trees a friend gave us to replace the plums and pear we lost when the city did its thing. For the first year, one of these has fruit—exactly two pears, with a perfect pear shape, high on the tree. We decided this spring to plant another apple tree among these, to provide (we hope) cross-pollination for the Cullasaga.

Along the fence between the pears and apple are a weigela or a kolkwitzia—I'm not sure which, honestly; it's another of the plants that got uprooted from its original location—that I'm now confident will re-grow, after several years of struggle to establish itself following the sewer line. There are also two rose of Sharons that haven't yet bloomed, since a friend-cousin just gave them to me last fall, from her garden to the north of Little Rock, and they're still small but fiercely withstanding the dogs' assault on them.

In the southeast corner of the garden is a rose we planted as a climber, but which turns out to be a large rambler, instead. It’s a passalong plant we got from a neighbor up the hill, in one of the grand houses that line the ridge looking down on the Arkansas River, for which our little cottages down the hill must once have been servants’ quarters.

This neighbor is an interesting, if unconventional, gardener. Each year as her roses stop blooming, she hacks away at them, throwing the hacked bits down onto the sidewalk outside the stone wall over whose rim the roses spill. When we saw her doing this a few years ago, we asked if we might take some of the cuttings, and she graciously agreed: they were there to dry out and be swept away, after all—by somebody, surely, since they were no longer on her property or hers to trouble with.

She identified the cuttings we took as Mme. Isaac Pereire. Because this rose spills over a stone wall, we assumed that it was a climber and planted it in the corner of the fence to grow along each side of the fence. It turns out we were wrong: it rambles rather than climbs. But it’s a good grower, even in that hot, dry spot, and is covered even now with fragrant blossoms, a second growth of blooms after its first late-spring showing.

In front of this rose, in the bend formed as the pathway circles back west here, we’ve gathered and replanted all the daylilies we found in the garden when we came here—the old light-orange type with tall stems, the kind that grow and spread without much care at all. They’re in full bloom now, a beautiful, ephemeral sight I enjoy each morning, knowing they’ll soon be gone. In their middle I’ve placed a tall old ceramic chimney top I bought at a junk shop, from an old house that had been dismantled, with a gazing ball at its apex.

Along the south fence we used to have beautiful climbing roses—Old Blush and a old red climber whose name escapes me. Those died mysteriously in the last two years, and we’ve now planted cuttings of the old red climber about which I blogged a few weeks back to replace them, and a Veilchenblau that Steve longed for after we saw it growing over a small tree in a garden in Hot Springs two years ago. We had first seen it in Hamburg in 1990 and have never forgotten it.

In this same bed are hollyhocks, the seed of which German friends brought us from their cottage on the Île d’Olérons a few years ago, and which now bravely re-seed themselves each summer amidst the roses (or what remains of the roses). A few are still in bloom now, all purple and all very handsome. I plan to save their seed and see if I can plant more of them next year.

Between the vitex and the roses, in an area created by the circling fieldstone path on the south side of the garden, we’ve let Bermuda grass grow back, hoping to entice the dogs to play there during the day (but unsuccessfully, though they’ve dug some magnificent holes in their play spot and have a pathway now trampled right through its center). Some of the shrubs that got heeled in for safe-keeping when the gardeners tried to save our garden after the sewer line went through are there, and I’ve recently decided these are aronia. They’re bearing fruit this year, and it (as well as the leaf and blossom) look like black aronia to me.

We’ve also built a small rock drywall around part of this yard area, in which we’ve planted a butterfly bush, along with some annuals and perennials—Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida), pineapple sage, and more daylilies, for instance. Zinnias have volunteered here, having re-seeded themselves last year, evidently, and are now in full bloom amidst the Mexican tarragon. The combination of the bright yellow buttons of the Tagetes flower and the multicolored zinnias is pleasing to my eye.

And that’s the garden, really—with the addition of a large redbud tree at the southwest corner next to the house, under which there’s a bed of hostas mixed with river fern; a huge Lady Banksia rose against the house on the west side, with Japanese painted fern and lemon balm at its feet; and a small garden built into the stone pathway in front of this, full of peonies). This part of the garden also has a two-tiered fountain and a birdbath, both in shady spots so their water won't heat in the boiling summer sun, and both of which the birds appreciate when the hot, dry days of full summer begin.

It’s not a large garden or a particularly glorious one. But it’s my own tiny patch of earth, and it pleases me. Sitting on one of the benches in the garden with the dogs at my feet (they love to have company outside), listening to the birds, watching the bees hard at work in the vitex, smelling the gardenia: this may be the closest I’ll get to heaven during my earthly journey, closer than I'll ever get trying to speak truth to power in a world in which power of the emptiest sort seems always to prevail. And closer by far than I seem to get anytime I set foot in any church I know.

So I take heaven where I find it, amidst the birds and dogs and bees, the gardenia and the bee bush, the fountain's play and pomegranate's surprising blooms. And I'm glad to find it here, now, evanescent as it seems to be for the likes of me.