And to think I used to sit in a desk chair in front of a computer in a windowless office all day.
I’ll sit in the dirt any day, and do the best work of my life.
May 28th, 2015 § 0
And to think I used to sit in a desk chair in front of a computer in a windowless office all day.
I’ll sit in the dirt any day, and do the best work of my life.
April 9th, 2015 § 1
The past week began with brutal wind-driven snow showers and has ended with temperatures edging into the high 60sF under blue skies and streaming sun. I suppose it’s like spring everywhere, showing two faces as winter reluctantly cedes to the inevitable warmth and light. And the light! Since the clocks sprang forward a couple of weeks ago I’ve been marveling at how long the days are now, with light past 8:00 p.m. What a change from winter, when the world went dim at 3:30 in the afternoon and I went to school each morning in the dark. And the days will continue to grow longer until late June, until it is freakishly light late at night thanks to this northern latitude. No wonder there are aisles of blackout curtains appearing in the local shops.
The return of the light, and some decently warm temperatures, has me back out plant collecting. As the ground wakes up, more and more plants are showing themselves to me. Today I walked to Blackford Hill and the first thing I saw was an orgy. The warm and shallow water of the pond was teeming with toads. I watched one randy fellow swim from one potential mate to another, slipping up behind each in a fumbling wet embrace that was usually deflected in a kicking swirl of muddy water. He could have taken a lesson from this persistent fellow who rode his indifferent girlfriend all the way down the path in front of me as I sat eating lunch.
The toads aren’t the only creatures with spring fever. The geese were swimmingly paired and the swans sat preening on their nest.
And I’ve got spring fever too. The sunlight is intoxicating, and I have dreams of garden parties, picnic blankets, and park barbeques. The plants are returning, and the gardens are even more a place of wonder and education. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a spring, and so full of joy at the return of the light.
March 9th, 2015 § 3
Living in Edinburgh it’s easy to forget that it’s actually a pretty small city surrounded by some beautiful farmland and countryside. I got my first taste of rural Scotland when one of my classmates invited a few of us Botanics folk for a weekend house party at his place on a working cattle farm about 45 minutes outside of town. It was absolutely lovely to be holed up in a cozy home being plied with delicious food and drink for two days. It certainly didn’t hurt that my host is a former chef at Michelin-starred restaurants. I ate the best food I’ve had since moving to Edinburgh.
It was a very late night Saturday, up many hours later than I’ve been in years. But even with two hour’s sleep a few of us rallied for a long after-breakfast walk, and I thought you’d might like to see a more rural side of Scotland.
At the top of a great hill behind the farm was a wind farm, furiously spinning in the gusts.
A view northwest to the Pentland Hills, at left, and over the Firth, at right. The lump in the middle distance is Arthur’s Seat.
Walking back down the hill the Firth stretched out in front of us as a blue ribbon. Beyond it were snow-topped mountains.
Naturalized snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) alongside the creek, or “burn” as my Scottish friend corrected me. Beyond were thousands of daffodils just about to bloom.
As we were walking along, most of our conversation was about school and plants. We kept sharp eyes peeled for plants to add to our pressed plant assignment, and it was absolutely wonderful to be in the company of engaging, inquisitive friends whose interests were right aligned with mine. Our geeky Latin-speak would have put some people off, but here we could relax and practice our new language. It was a very profound moment for me, to be able to revel in the safety and stimulation of new and wonderful companions. After a lifetime of learning about plants on my own, I am thrilled to have found my tribe.
The country roads were lined on either side with beech (Fagus sylvatica) hedges whose coppery leaves glowed in the sun. Hedges are such a nice, attractive alternative to fences, and provide so much safe habitat for birds and little creatures.
I returned from the country feeling completely refreshed, like I’d had a vacation. It was wonderful to be back in my native habitat for a bit, and to see some more of this lovely part of the world while sharing passions with some pretty cool folks. I am incredibly grateful for the experiences I am having in Scotland, and each day those experiences deepen and become more amazing as I move further into this new chapter in my life. Exciting times, can’t wait to see what’s next.
March 4th, 2015 § 2
This morning I put on my botanist hat and headed to the east side of town to begin one of the year’s biggest assignments: Locate, identify, harvest, press, and mount 35 native British plants as herbarium specimens. It sounds like a bit of a faff, I know, but it’s actually proven quite challenging for many reasons, the first being that I am not familiar enough with the local flora to identify as many things offhand as I could back in the U.S. So I haul wildflower and plant i.d. books into the field with me, but those are no real picnic to decipher. Second, so many plants that one might believe are native are, in fact, introduced. A prime example is the little snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, which to me and many others is emblematic of late winter in British woodlands. However, it was introduced in the 16th century and then naturalized until it was found in the wild in the 18th century.
Finally, the time of year is a challenge as March is just too early for most plants to be actively growing let alone flowering, which limits what I can successfully identify. The assignment is due in May, and it takes weeks to properly dry herbarium specimens so they can be stored without rotting.
So I figured I’d better get cracking, even with these odds against me. I packed a picnic lunch with a roast pork and chutney sandwich, filled a flask of hot tea, chucked my secateurs into my backpack and headed in the direction of Duddingston Loch, a lake and bird reserve south of Arthur’s Seat.
I tromped some woodland on the way, and cut a bits of holly and ivy (yet unidentified) and Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) before I stopped off at Dr. Neil’s Garden to eat my lunch overlooking the beautiful loch. The Pentland Hills in the distance were still covered in yesterday’s snow, and the streaming sun, shimmering water, and myriad swooping and singing birds made for a perfect picnic.
I made my way up the garden to a sheltered nook with a great wooden bench. It was warm in the sun, and I lay down. Watching the clouds skid across the sky made me so mellow I fell asleep for at least an hour. I can’t remember the last time I slept outside—I was entirely relaxed.
When I woke up I hopped a stone wall and ambled around the loch, climbing amongst the spiney gorse (Ulex europeaus), which of course I cut for my assignment despite being prickered to bleeding. I scrambled up some rocks and found myself on an overhang high above the loch, discovering a beautiful feather along the way. Pheasant?
The top of the hill was a great spot to watch the geese, swans, seagulls and other little birds swim below.
As I was drinking my tea I saw two huge grey herons fly side by side to their nest in a brushy little peninsula. It was an amazing sight, something I’d never seen before—a pair of herons on the nest. It’s egg-laying time. Wish I’d had binoculars!
So it turns out that the life of a plant collector comprises a little hiking, lots of fun thinking about plants, a picnic, a nap in the sun, and some birdwatching. It’s a good life, and added up to one of my favorite days yet in Edinburgh.
February 27th, 2015 § 2
Yesterday our nursery production class visited the Inch Nursery, where all of the bedding plants used to decorate the city of Edinburgh are grown. I was really struck by the huge nursery tables filled with seed-starting trays. Each module is no bigger than a centimeter squared and yet every one held a tiny growing seedling just a millimeter or two tall. These are the beginnings of new life, and I stood in front of all that potential and felt like there’s so much to look forward to with the coming of this spring.
My classmates and I spent the afternoon potting up thousands of bedding geraniums, standing and chatting and laughing at a long bench full of compost. It’s mindless work, and essential to do quickly and efficiently. But it’s lovely to get lost in the feeling of compost under my hands. Scoop, dangle a young plant over the pot, one scoop, two scoop, tap the pot once on the counter and on to the next. It’s a flow activity if ever there was one.
I am not sure bedding geraniums are anyone’s favorite plant, but these are destined to bring bright color to what the Rough Guide just the other week voted the fourth most beautiful city on the world. That I had anything to do with making something pretty for millions of people to see is entirely satisfying, especially when that something pretty began life as a dry little speck shoved under compost, with hope.
And also with shovelfuls of hope, here’s a little shout-out to the person who at 7 this morning gave me the best news I’ve had in months. So happy and excited for new adventures in our future, couldn’t stop grinning all day. XOXOXOXOXO!!!
January 15th, 2015 § 2
This week’s plant identification is a real challenge: conifers. We had a walkaround last Friday, just snuck it in as soon as the gardens reopened after having been closed most of the week because of high winds. It was still gusty, and a cold rain fell as we sped around the garden looking at twenty different conifers. My notes bled across the paper, which melted in the rain and sloughed away under my pen.
The weather and similarity of the subject matter conspired against me, and over the weekend I found I wasn’t able to learn the conifers as fast as I had other plants. So Tuesday night, after a full day of work experience at the Botanics, I set out alone to find the twenty trees we’d been assigned to learn. The gardens had closed for the day, the gates locked, and I was alone with the plants.
It was a real scavenger hunt as I tried to remember where we’d walked in a garden I have still not learned by heart. The day was going dark fast, and snow fell as I tromped beneath evergreen boughs, trying to spot the small black labels that identify each plant in the garden. The only sound was the strange and reproachful flapping of the large roosting birds whose bedtime I’d disturbed. It was so cold that my hands cramped and I could write only shaky initials on the labels I’d brought to i.d. cuttings from each of the assigned trees.
In the empty garden, in the freezing dark, I caught a tiny glimpse of the wildness that makes urban gardens such important links to the natural world. By day the Botanics are obsessively orderly and man’s desire to control nature is the main attraction. But when all the people leave, and the darkness erases tidy edges and labeling plaques, the garden occupants revert to their undomesticated outlines. Walking amongst them, in the quiet dark, the city dropped from my awareness and I was for just a moment back in all the wild places I have lived in and loved, and miss.
All week I’ve been working with the plant material I collected that night, learning these conifers not only by sight (Chamaecyparis pisifera has white, butterfly-shaped markings on the underside of its leaves) but also by touch and smell (Thuja plicata smells like pineapple or artificial fruit flavoring). To have such closely related plant material has been an exercise in broadening my identification skills to include all senses. The test is tomorrow, wish me luck.
December 25th, 2014 § 0
My first Christmas in Scotland brought the gift of a crystal-clear day amongst so many full of rain, hail, and grey clouds. I walked six and a half miles around the quiet city today, rambling up the Salisbury Crags for a great view of Edinburgh in all directions from the Pentland Hills to the sea. Spot Edinburgh Castle below, and the three spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral to the left, marking the neighborhood where I now live.
The extremely low winter sun, when it’s actually out, makes for some pretty light—caught here on the native gorse (Ulex europaeus). It’s a devilishly spiny shrub that’s been used as hedging to contain livestock. This guy was on my last i.d. exam, and it was nice to see it in flower today.
Wherever you are rambling today, I wish you all a very merry Christmas.
December 10th, 2014 § 0
My first term as a new horticulture student ended Friday, and I am a strange mixture of relieved it’s over, proud of myself for surviving, and excited to get back to school. The last six months were some of the most challenging I’ve ever lived, beginning with the decision to leave my beautiful farm in Virginia and move to a foreign country where I knew no one, all to try to learn something new at age 35.
And I am happy to say that I have indeed learned a lot, which really came into focus when I received the most recent issue of my favorite magazine, Gardens Illustrated. This British publication is so lovely that I’d actually splashed out on an international subscription when I was still living in the U.S., and it is no understatement to say that the writing, photographs, and knowledge contained within its pages influenced my decision to study horticulture. When I got a U.K. address, one of the first things I did was subscribe to Gardens Illustrated here. My first issue arrived last week, and while paging through it I was amazed to see that after three months of studying horticulture, I am reading a completely new magazine. What’s changed? I’ve learned a new language.
Latin. That language no one speaks but everyone said, while I was growing up, was “just so helpful” for understanding what seemed like everything in the world. As a young student I didn’t study Latin, yet I managed to grow up and become a semi-literate member of society who garnered a fair share of bylines without anyone knowing my secret linguistic deficit.
And then came the first week of horticultural training, and into my hands was thrust a list of 25 plant names. In Latin. That I had to learn to identify from live material and name. It Latin. I swallowed hard. The gig was up.
Before I had time to panic the class was herded outside on a high-speed zoom about the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, trailing our sprightly and quintessentially English head of education as he pointed out each of the plants on the list and where they grew. All while spouting even more Latin.
The class stood beneath a tall tree that had just about dropped all its buttery yellow autumn leaves: Kalopanax septemlobus. Our teacher picked one of the tree’s leaves up off the ground, counted the seven lobes out loud, and tossed it on the ground, scoffing, “It must be broken.”
And off we zoomed to the next plant on the list.
We did this every week with a new list of plants, and one of the things that’s most amazed me about this transition is that I am actually able to learn and remember all these new plant names. In Latin. Which brings me back to reading my magazine, where, because it is a reputable horticultural publication, all plants are referred to by their Latin names. Today, when I read down a list of plants and came across Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ which was just on my last exam Friday, I almost leapt from my chair out of sheer joy of recognition and understanding. Now I know that rather complicated name refers to the relatively prosaic little black mondo grass that edges municipal plantings everywhere. And which isn’t actually, technically, a grass.
For the first time in a life spent loving plants I am learning to call them by their real names. This might not seem like a lot, but one of the major benefits of binomial nomenclature (two name—there I go with more Latin, somebody stop me!—the first being the genus, second species) is that if you know the genus to which a species belongs, you are well on your way toward a basic understanding of the fundamental characteristics of a plant whether you’ve seen it or not. How handy!
Before I began my course, I used to kind of just gloss over those Latin plant names, as one tends to do with things in foreign languages one doesn’t understand. But now, for the first time in my life, I have begun to read and understand this language. And it’s a whole new world.
October 30th, 2014 § 11
I know it’s been nearly two months of silence here on the Bonafide Blog, but just wanted to pop back in to say that I will now be writing from Edinburgh, Scotland!
I moved here in early September, arriving on my 35th birthday, and have since been studying Horticulture with Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Scotland’s Rural College. It’s been a long-held dream to study plants in the U.K., and I am really excited to be doing it at one of the best places in the world for the study of horticulture.
It’s been an absolutely crazy two months, during which my world turned upside down. I was pretty sure I’d shut down the blog. But now circumstances have evolved so that I will actually be doing some farming in Scotland, so I plan on writing about that here as well as the odd observation or two about expatriate life. I may even get around to exploring all the lessons I learned at Bonafide Farm, as promised.
To everyone who wrote asking about Tucker, he is safe and sound living the good life with my parents just a short drive away from the old Bonafide Farm. He is enjoying his new home, where he has a full-time canine playmate, and of course the love and attention of my parents, who are wonderful with him. My kitty is there as well, and all my chickens found good new homes with friends. I’m not going to say it was easy to leave them all, but every creature is well-taken-care-of and happy.
Thank you all for your lovely comments on my last post. I didn’t really know so many people were reading and finding what I wrote useful and inspirational, so it was a wonderful surprise to hear all the nice things you had to say. Thank you for reading, and I hope you stick with me for the next iteration of Bonafide Farm. More to come, very soon!