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.
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.
August 5th, 2014 § 1
As I drove into town this evening, I kept noticing naked lady lilies (Lycoris squamigera) blooming in the yards of some of the oldest houses. These fascinating members of the Amaryllis family are bulbs that first appear in spring with strappy leaf growth, looking like beefier daffodils that never flower. The leaves die back and then, suddenly, in late July or early August tall stalks shoot from the ground and unfurl translucent pink flowers that do indeed have the luminescent glow of bare flesh. Because of this disappearing/reappearing trick, they’re also known as surprise or resurrection lilies.
Because of their ephemeral nature, it took me a few years to realize I had a clump of these lilies growing in my woods near the previous owner’s junk pile. I hurried out there tonight and caught my own naked ladies on their first day of bloom. Like many lilies, these have a strong, sweet scent. They really are pretty magical, holding court in the old oak grove.
I associate surprise lilies with old homesteads as they are amazingly long-lived. I wonder how mine got in the middle of the woods. I have several mysterious patches of cultivated plants in my woods, including groups of irises and other spring-flowering bulbs. Were they planted to mark a grave, perhaps of a beloved pet, or were they chucked into the woods during garden cleanup, as I’ve done with some of my own iris rhizomes?
I suppose I will never know, but I enjoy them just the same.
July 23rd, 2014 § 0
Monday night, before the rain had even stopped, I was out in the garden harvesting tomatoes. I knew that with so much rain, so quickly, any tomato that was even remotely near ripe would be split by morning if I didn’t get it off the vine. The year’s first Beefmaster and Brandwine were ripe, and I didn’t want to lose these massive and beautiful fruits, ironically, to too much moisture in a drought.
I picked all the tomatoes I could, with a few squash and cukes for good measure. It baffles me that the squash are still standing, but several readers have written that they’ve seen the same pattern in their gardens. Lots of Japanese beetles, not many squash bugs. Amazing. If this is an effect of the polar vortex, I’ll take one every winter!
As calculated by my kountry rain gauge, I got just shy of two inches of rain from the storm. Pretty amazing for about an hour’s worth of rain.
July 13th, 2014 § 0
July 7th, 2014 § 0
It was a perfect holiday weekend at the farm—unseasonably cool and dry, crystal-clear with a great brisk breeze thanks to Hurricane Arthur. I had the windows open all weekend, the A.C. off, and did a double-take Saturday night when the temperature outside was 52 degrees right before bed. It had been a fun night—from about nine to ten I enjoyed the sounds of the Crozet fireworks show. Despite being fifteen miles away, it sounded like it was in my backyard. Sound has a funny way of bouncing up and down this valley, and it was cool to stand in the yard and hear the blasts echo off each mountain top.
I took advantage of the weather to dry some clean sheets outside on my new clothesline, which I love as it’s relaxing to watch whatever’s hung on it billow in the breeze. Then I parked myself on the back porch for two days straight to soak up the amazing weather before the more seasonal heat and humidity returns again today. I ate all my meals outside, caught up on my magazines, began re-reading some Faulkner, and started in on this little cross-stitch of green seedlings.
The designer is Japanese artist Kazuko Aoki, and the pattern book (Wildflower Garden) I have is a Chinese translation. So it’s been a bit of a crap-shoot to figure out but I think I got it. I had about given up on sewing when I failed to finish a project begun in high school, but I like these simple, spare and natural designs so much that they tempted me back in. I am pleased that I found this sewing easy and relaxing, so much so that I completed the whole project in two days!
Spending hours on end sitting on the porch really provided me with a secret window into the workings of all the neighborhood bird life. It’s amazing what you can see if you just. don’t. move. I caught the baby mockingbird’s discovery of the bird bath, and watched as it figured out how to toss water over its wings. I am convinced that the birdbath, which I added last year, is behind the notable uptick in the number of breeding birds in the yard. I was going to shim it up to make it more level, but watching this fledgling explore the water made me realize that the birds probably appreciate the beach-like effect of a slightly off-level bird bath. It’s a zero-depth entry kiddie pool!
Then yesterday in early afternoon I heard dramatic, insistent bird cries from somewhere near my head. I poked around following the sound and discovered a sparrow fledgling in the big lilac, begging for food. I got this shot of its parent stuffing a fat green worm beak-deep into its loud child’s mouth.
The temperature had begun to creep up yesterday evening, and by 5:00 p.m. the sun was too much on the porch. So Tuck and I hit the road for our usual three-mile loop to a nearby river, where we could cool our paws in the slow-moving water.
And then home, walking in the sun along a hot and dusty gravel road between verges full of warm and fragrant yarrow. It smelled dry and sweet, like the desert, or, I imagine, the Mediterranean. It was the perfect end to this gift of a summer weekend.
June 14th, 2014 § 4
Meadows are hot right now, with horticulturalists’ renewed focus on habitat preservation/creation and the rise of the “new perennial” gardening movement that showcases native and “wild-looking” plants in naturalistic compositions. Everyone loves a meadow—or at least the image of them as presented in aspirational garden porn—billowing fields of lively grasses punctuated with bright yellow, pink and white blooms that persist all summer long.
There are several ways to achieve the cultivated meadow look, and the most commonly accepted, and perhaps effective, method involves several rounds of herbicide spray that kill all existing plants back to bare dirt, a process that takes about a year in order to catch each wave of germination. The idea is to create a blank slate so that you may then, ideally in the fall, sow a mix of wildflower seeds that’s usually composed of annuals, to give you quick, first-year color, and perennials, which will take longer to get going but persist and multiply through the years. Without leveling the playing field with herbicide, the desired wildflower seeds most likely wouldn’t be able to germinate and out-compete the existing vegetation.
All this is fine, and I’ve seen some lovely meadows created this way. But the idea of mass herbicide spray doesn’t sit well with me, nor does watching vast swaths of ground turn brown and shrivel, taking with it the native plants in all their diversity only to be replaced with a select blend of imports. As much as I would love to try creating a wildflower meadow, and still may, I haven’t yet been able to reconcile the steps I’d have to take to get there.
But as I was mulling this gardener’s quandary, a wildflower meadow was quietly forming right in my own yard with almost no help from me. It happened in the transitional zone between the forest and my mowed field, on a patch of ground that had been thickly colonized by invasive alanthus trees, honeysuckle, and brambles. This area was cleared back to bare dirt two winters ago, and I basically just left it alone.
Last year I noticed tons of mullein plants sprouting in the bare dirt. Mullein are the pioneers of the plant world—they are among the first plants to recolonize disturbed ground. They are biennials, and in their first year form a rosette of soft, fuzzy grey-green leaves. The second year the plants shoot tall yellow flower stalks high into the sky. Mullein has a long and respected heritage in herbal medicine, and is commonly used to treat disorders of the respiratory system. If you believe in the doctrine of signatures, the leaves of mullein are lung-shaped, which indicates that they are beneficial to that part of the body.
I think mullein are incredibly beautiful, and so I refrained from mowing them last year in order to see them bloom this year. Well, in not mowing this patch of ground, I unintentionally created what has turned out to be a fascinating wildflower meadow—no herbicide needed. In addition to purple clover, wild strawberries, and countless other plants, here are just a few of the flowers I’ve identified in my meadow:
Dianthus armeria, or Deptford Pink, a relative of Sweet William
Achillea millefolium, common yarrow
Some kind of very pretty, low-growing grass that reminds me of the “fiber optic grass” sold in nurseries. Any ideas what it is?
Papaver aculeatum (I think), orange poppy, gone to seed
Triodanis perfoliata, Venus Looking Glass
Wild onion, gone to seed
Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Virginia creeper, with Erigeron strigosus, Prairie Fleabane in the background
I look forward to watching this meadow progress through the summer, but in the meantime I find it so striking that the former hayfield, above, which I bush hog every now and then, is so much less botanically diverse than the new meadow, below, which sits just a few feet away. I am not sure if this is because the hayfield was created (how are hayfields created, anyway?) once upon a time to be primarily grasses, but I would have thought that by now it would have reverted to a more wild state. Perhaps the grass cover is too thick to allow other plants to germinate? Botanical succession—how plants reclaim and populate land, which come first, and how they create ideal conditions for each successive wave of new plants—fascinates me, and I am glad to have these uncultivated meadows that provide a wonderful laboratory to watch and learn from this process.