March 30, 2009

Spring Patience

Spring arrives later and proceeds down the garden, forest and farm-field aisles with more gradual, cautious steps in northern Michigan than it does even in parts of the state just a few hours to the south. When the lilac bushes hereabouts at last drop their shoulders under the weight of fully opened flowers, lilacs in the Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids areas will have passed their peak by a couple of weeks. Peonies generally aren't ready to shake out their pom-pom heads until after Memorial Day. Nighttime frosts continue with regularity right through April, can and do keep showing up in May to lay killing fingers on emerging growth. Memorial Day is traditionally held to be the earliest safe date for setting out tender starter plants, although last year that holiday weekend which is supposed to usher in summer brought, instead, a hard frost.

Along the coastal fringes of Lake Michigan, the water of the big lake moderates the temperature somewhat, and in consequence the last frost date here will be earlier than just a mile or so inland from the shoreline. Nonetheless, the nights still nosedive into the twenties and thirties throughout April and May. It is really hard to curtail the urge brought on by seductive spring daytime temperatures to get out in the garden and start sowing. The pile of seed packets stands at the ready on the kitchen counter, listing ever so longingly towards the back door. There are exciting new characters in the pile, with glamorous headshots profiling the good looks they are ready to bring to the garden stage. The planting instructions are perused again and again, maybe it didn't really say wait until after all chance of frost?

Patience isn't just a virtue, it is a non-negotiable job requirement for a gardener. Almost everything done in the garden is done for the delayed gratification, sometimes very long delayed, of a future reward. Being too hasty and attempting to accelerate any part of the stately, methodical process of raising a garden usually leads to heartbreak, as surely as does stampeding gung-ho into a fledgling romance. Gardens want to be courted the old-fashioned way, gently and steadily wooed into fruition. Their response to stalking, imploring and badgering will be to shrivel away from the suitor. Seeds and young plants put out when the nights still fall into frozen postures may not die, but neither will they thrive, and the poor, shocking start can arrest and stunt their growth throughout the summer.

Right now the signs of incipient spring are still almost nonexistent. The trees remain flat brown and grey, no blushes of returning growth yet color their bark in Easter pastel greens, yellows and rose. The grass on the meadows and fields is the tawny, lifeless color of dried cornstalks, the American dune grass on the beaches is the pale, quiescent blond of Marilyn Monroe's hair. In the garden, only the merest tip of the primroses, a handful of the daffodils, and a few skinny fronds of the poppies have made their way through the cold ground and taken on the green hue of rebirth.

In the last week or so, spring has deigned to advance far enough to re-open most of the hiking areas that become inaccessible under winter's snow and ice payload. As winter marches onward in the Leelanau Peninsula, the number of places where a hike can be taken diminish week by week. Trailheads become unreachable down unplowed, knee-high, snowed-buried country roads. With the trails out of reach, only the beaches remain passable for walkers. Then the treacherous, chunky, slick freezing of the sands sets in, arctic icebergs get thrown up on the shorelines by the tumultuous November and December gales, and the beaches, too, become unwalkable. By February and into March, only the town and village roads are left as possibilities for stretching the legs without first donning snowshoes or cross-country skis.

Spring has at least now bequeathed back the country trails, the dunes and beaches. The snow and ice have mostly melted, back-country gravel roads can be navigated, trailheads achieved. The dunes shed their winter duvets of snow, and startle again with how much, each year, they shift and change their shape. This spring the annual shape-shifting wrought by the winter winds is most visible at the Sleeping Bear Dunes dune climb along Highway 109. The dune climb plateau has migrated downward what looks to be about six feet, it's horizontal headland now scooped out to resemble a swayback sculpted crescent. The waterline of the lake is higher this year, as well, the winter's heavy precipitation having forwarded it right to the foot of the bluffs at Sleeping Bear Point, and swallowed up five to ten feet of sandy beach. New hills, ridgelines and sweeping sand bowls redefine the dune silhouettes all up and down the coast, a facelift that changes the vistas encountered on each familiar trail. The altered limbs and muscles of the dunes are a reminder that they live, breath, heave, cascade, and evolve. The bears do not stay still, but roll over in their sleep.

For now, the gardener needs to unhand those seed packets, take a deep breath, explore anew another trail friend back from winter hibernation, and accept the fact that calendar dates signifying the commencement of spring for other climes mean, in northern Michigan, that the garden is just turning over and snuggling back down into another month or two of its beauty sleep, not even close to prepared to rise and shine. As garden writer Eleanor Perenyi advises, “patience is the only way. The seasons can't be rushed, or halted.” Nature knows when the moment is right to bedeck herself in bonnets of narcissus and white gloves of snowdrops, to slip into her patten leather pumps of kelly green creeping phlox, and step forth to give us her hand for the opening dance of springtime. The gardener, hat in hand, can only wait.

March 20, 2009

Death in the Garden

Appearances can be dangerously deceptive in the garden. Some of the most delicate, pretty little things harbor substances that can easily fell a hale and hearty grown-up. Some flowers found in almost every full-fledged Michigan garden can raise welts and rashes on the skin, burn the ability to see from the eyes. Reading in a 1934 tome called “The Herbalist,” by Joseph E. Meyer, “author and compiler,” it's astounding how very many well-known garden friends and companions secretly possess the power to commit murder most foul.

Nibbling the young, spring leaves of delphinium or larkspur before the plant flowers, for instance, will rapidly poison the eater. The leaves and seeds of these plants may cause dermatitis. The fair-haired spring bulbs of narcissus, daffodil, jonquil and paper-whites all result in poisoning if ingested. At the other end of the flower season, autumn crocus are highly venomous, potentially not just sick-making but fatal if eaten.

The milky juice in young seed capsules of the poppy carries the extremely potent opium narcotic. Severe poisoning will also follow upon eating fresh or dried leaves of foxgloves, and children can be poisoned from chewing on foxglove flowers or seeds. Turkey mullein, or doveweed, holds in its veins a narcotic that was employed by Native Americans to make poisoned arrows, and which causes stupefaction when it enters the bloodstream.

Hellebore, or the Lenten rose, is filled with alkaloid toxins from its late-winter blooming flowers, to the leaves, to the extremely poisonous root, and consumption of any part of the plant can bring on violent vomiting. Bruising or brushing the leaves can also cause rashes. Sweet, petite lily-of-the-valley contains deadly amounts of cardiac clycosides in the leaves, flowers, rootstalk and berries. A child can perish just from drinking the water in a vase of these flowers! Considering how the lily-of-the-valley's enchanting scent, bell-shaped flower and diminutive size make it a magnet for children, its toxicity is especially worrisome. These little charmers bear close monitoring when children are about.

Some of the most attractive wildflowers are also very efficient poison-delivery systems. Dutchman's breeches, a very common and attractive sight every springtime throughout Michigan woodlands, have leaves and roots that will induce trembling, loss of balance, difficulty breathing and convulsions, should one be foolish enough to take a bite out of them. The fluid in the stalks of lady's slipper raises a poison ivy-like rash. Deadly nightshade (pictured above), also traveling under the alias of jimsonweed, is so lethal that consuming it leads to an intoxicated state, intense agony, delirium and death.

The latex sap in butterfly weed (or spurges) is potentially carcinogenic, burns the eyes and inflicts dermatitis. The feathery Chinese brake fern has an unusual talent for absorbing large amounts of arsenic from the soil, which it effortlessly passes along as a venom to those who eat its leaves. The bracken fern brings on acute poisoning in ruminants (including humans who may happen to graze upon it). The roots of squill are used to make a poison rodent powder. And the juice of milkweed stalks is another virulent poison, to animals and humans alike.

Jeepers creepers! Mother Nature sure knows how to arm her progeny with weapons against would-be predators. Of course, she also endows many of them with curative, calming and beneficial substances, as any herbal practitioner can attest. Even the baneful milkweed sap is said to eradicate warts if rubbed upon them (assuming one doesn't accidentally then transfer the affected area to one's mouth and die before the wart disappears).

The juice of the kindly Joe Pye weed, applied as a poultice, will heal sores, wounds and bruises, and hunters have noted that a wounded deer will seek out this weed to consume. The bark of willow trees and the ground leaf of Meadowsweet offer an aspirin-like chemical without aspirin's side effects, efficacious remedy for headaches, rheumatism and arthritis. Violets are known as nature's Vitamin C, being richer in this vitamin even than oranges, pound for pound. Verbena plants proffer a natural antidote to their more injurious cohorts by arresting and neutralizing the diffusion of ingested poison.

All told, it's clearly best to be well-armed with a thorough botanical guidebook before going noshing in the dodgy, chimerical environs of the plant world, even unto the gentle, frothy, fragile-seeming flower beds. Knowledge is needed to distinguish the benign edibles from the potential plant assassins and to identify horticultural helpers like the periwinkle. An old English herbalist, one Dr. Culpepper, promises that “the leaves of periwinkle, if eaten by man and wife together, will cause love between them.” And if that doesn't work out as anticipated, there's abundant recourse to be sought from Mother Nature's more pernicious gifts. Dram of nightshade tea, old thing?

March 14, 2009

Last Days of Winter and Nation's Dark Season

Pretty much everyone stopping in the corner EZ Mart for coffee, the village post office for mail, the IGA grocery, agrees it's high time for winter to get out of town. Winter unleashed salvos so early this year, barely letting Halloween close-up shop before it started landing left-right combinations of below-freezing temperatures and truckloads of snow. Big snow – more so far than in the last 13 years and it isn't over yet – and frostbite cold have stuck around almost without interruption for close on five months now. Everyone but the diehard skiers has joined the chorus shouting or muttering darkly, “Enough! Get away with you!”

The dire local, state and national socio-economic situation this winter further assaulted our spirits and fingersmithed our wallets. Investment bank and stock firm CEOs stole American homes, pensions and savings to buy themselves lavish lifestyles, and then walked away rich from the financial conflagration they ignited. When you're unemployed, or working reduced hours for a diminished paycheck, or agonizing over family members who can't scare up a decent job no matter how hard they search, or making choices between buying schoolbooks and supplies or buying food, getting smacked in the face with a sleety open palm of -5 wind and chill when you step outside starts to wear resilience to a pretty thin edge.

But the responsible grown-ups who make up 99% of the apples in our national bushel basket are a scrappy, determined, decent, can-do, inventive, street- and farmyard-smart bunch. Whether because spring hovers just down the road a stretch, or from the wise guidance of the elders among us who've weathered such national storm seasons before, or because American grit is founded in a credo of never give up, change for the better of all is en route. Led by the smartest, hardest-working and honorable president the country has enjoyed in decades, we are calling the corporate criminals to account, taking away their luxury penthouses and seizing back the stolen assets (and really, may Bernard Madoff, Arthur Nadel, John Thain and their ilk rot in hell).

We're figuring out creative methods to clean and green our industry and energy production, planting rooftop gardens on big box stores and assembly plants, and swapping out incandescent lightbulbs for long-lasting, low-energy fluorescents. We're rejuvenating our frugal, mend and make-do and grow your own and shop local, native know-how, reducing waste, recycling, lending a hand to neighbors and the needy, putting up windmills and taking down financial and environmental predators.

Progress is being made again. The country is emerging from its long, sharp, bone-shaking winter more savvy, leaner, more self-sufficient and healthier, more cognizant of and set on shoring up the common good than ever in recent memory. Baseball spring training is in full, oaken swing. Yesterday an honest-to-goodness, fat and fluffy robin redbreast – first one sighted this year -- alighted atop the crab apple tree in the back yard. The sap is running in the sugar maples, ready for tapping.

Counting down these final few frigid weeks until the song of the turtle is heard in the land, the simple, thrifty, cheering and succoring pleasures are what see north country denizens through. When the wind howls and tugs at the windowpanes, the snow cracks whips across the dune hills, the walkways and trails are too icy to maneuver, the gardener has recourse to the following list of true comforts with which to wait out winter's last gasps. If you have others, dear reader, please fire up the computer and send them along to share:

More time to spend reading newspapers, magazines, and in the entertaining, instructive companionship of treasured writers and fictional characters. Best books read since 2009 opened its eyes – “When Will There Be Good News?” by Kate Atkinson, “City of Thieves” by David Benioff, “The Brass Verdict” by Michael Connelly, “The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death” by Charlie Huston, "Green Thoughts," by Eleanor Perenyi, “Child 44” by Tom Rob Smith, and “Flower Confidential” by Amy Stewart.

Herds (yes, herds) of hungry, beautiful deer, their coats the color of driftwood, strolling down the main streets of the village, leaping snowbanks, pausing in long, still moments just yards away.

Oil paintings of landscapes and interiors, see especially the American wing at the Detroit Institute of Arts and anything by Frederick Edwin Church or Albert Bierstadt. Or Ruth Conklin and Kristin Hurlin in Glen Arbor, Mimi Nieman in Leland, paintings you can enter and inhabit.

Rediscovering the satisfaction of home-cooking and rich, hearty meals of homemade soup, stew, chili, pot roast and noodles, chicken and dumplings. This week it will be corned beef, redskin potatoes and cabbage, naturally.

Hot cocoa. Scarlet geraniums blooming on the windowsills.

Two for the price of one burgers, Monday nights, Art's Tavern, as in the sublime mushroom/swiss burger. Eagles and Lions pancake breakfasts and fish fry suppers at the village town halls, up and down the Leelanau Peninsula.

The musical stylings of Leonard Cohen, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen. While this selection might lead others to want to jump in the shower and open a vein, it makes me sing.

Glimmering snow paint strokes across the burnished gold muscles of the sand dunes.

Sheltering in bookstores and coffee shops, boning up on the new crops in literature, indulging in the occasional thick, black and homicidal espresso concoction. Walking the aisles at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime and marveling at the cornucopia of inexpensive, useful household goods and chattels on offer.

Paint-up, fix-up, sort, clean-up, recycle time with the homefront, its closets, dressers and cedar chests. Getting down to business with needlework projects that tend to languish when the weather's fine, knitting, quilting, sewing nice, cozy flannel curtains for the north-facing windows.

Weeknight evenings, watching Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert on Comedy Central, and the brilliant Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and thus getting schooled on the truth versus palaver in politics, government, current events, and getting to laugh out loud at the deft exposure of blowhards, scapegraces, blackguards and knuckleheads.

Down comforters and 9 p.m. bedtime, totally guilt-free. Goodnight, dear reader.

March 6, 2009

Spring Pruning

How cheering it is, after the big meltdown of a 50-degree day mid-week, to see the garden re-emerge and poke its head out of the disappearing snowpack. For the first time in several months, the small shrubs, cement statuary of rabbits and hedgehog, the spindly rosebushes and silver-sage lavender branchlettes, the amber pine needle mulch on the flower beds, all have doffed their thick snow blankets and begun to return the garden to view.

Sunday inaugurated the 2009 gardening year by being the first day of work in the garden. Or first hours would be more accurate, given that after two hours in the 29-degree temperature, the feet were so thoroughly chilled they made the hands down-tools, and strode up the path and back into the warmth indoors. Cold weather or not, the sky calendar of moon and stars dictated it was the best time to prune trees and shrubs, and really, this celestial command was happily obeyed. Though it was a shivery, nose-running two hours, it felt excellent to be abroad and at work in the garden again, with the soft, tempered warmth of the winter sunshine like a poultice on the face.

The goals of the pruning were to stimulate this year's growth, fruiting and flowering, to remove crossed, dead and unhealthy branches, and to shape and cut back branches going in unwanted directions. The young Fuji apple tree was the first customer for the clippers, as apple trees need sharp shearing during their youth if they are to mature into strong, fruit-bearing grown-ups. During this initial sally upon the garden's shaggy quarters, however, it quickly became apparent that not quite as much cutting back as recommended was going to be done. While I have no qualms about hacking out dead matter from the garden, it is extraordinarily difficult for this gardener to slice into living, apparently healthy growth and terminate it. In part, perhaps this cowardice is because all the inhabitants of the garden are still in their youth and on the small side. The vision is for the garden to be big, busting out all over, arms spread in luxurious, strapping growth, so even when one knows it will yield long-term horticultural dividends, it just seems wrong to assault and reduce the height and breadth the trees and shrubs have attained thus far in their short lives. So faint-heartedness and fond attachment to the progress of the garden denizens somewhat stayed the hand wielding the shears. The final result hopefully found a reasonable, efficacious balance between the cutting which could have been done, and that which the gardener deemed acceptably non-violent.

After the apple tree got its moderate trim job, it was on to the Chicago lustre viburnum, the American high bush cranberry, the diablo ninebark, and the red-twig dogwood shrubs, to remove just those branches rubbing against others, and a few offshoots encroaching into bordering areas. With all the leaves gone for winter, it's very easy to inspect and evaluate a tree or shrub, to spot problematic growth, and to see its silhouette and shape in full. The only troubling discovery was a barnacle-like, rock-hard growth about midway up a single branch on the apple tree, and a matching growth on a single branch of the red oak that is the next-door neighbor to the apple. This growth looks suspiciously like some type of fungal parasite, and will be taken to the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes park headquarters for identification by the arbor and botany experts. All national parks and university extension services have these resident founts of knowledge on staff, and are a tremendous free source of information for the amateur gardener.

Next in line for barbering were the rosebushes, which also got a scaled down pruning this year, considerably less than the one-third cutback of prior winters. Jim, the head gardener at the local Wildflowers garden shop, also describes himself as “not a big fan of pruning,” and provided the knowledge that only hybrid tea roses really require a good cut-back each spring. Shrub and old-fashioned roses should be pruned only to remove dead stems. Even though spring is still a couple of moons away and the rosebushes remain in dormancy, it is obvious to the eye which boughs are alive by their ruddy, reddish-greenish hue, as opposed to the dull dark brown and gray tints of dead boughs. Where color of the bark is not so conspicuous, an easy method of determining life within a branch is to scrape a small portion of bark away with the fingernail. Living branches will have a pale green color just below the surface bark, while dead ones will be dry, gray and white.

The last tasks completed entailed snipping off the dead, collapsed leaves of the globe thistle, daylilies and iris, the dried and largely denuded seedheads of red carpet sedum, and the long, sprawling fronds of switchgrass and fountain grass which had been brought to their knees by the weight of the snow. The remaining pruning and clear-up – the Russian sage, blue oat grass and miscanthus silver grass – await another sunny day, when the temperatures are more amenable to bare-handed toil. Darling, unpredictable spring can't be too many weeks away now, and an afternoon spent tidying the garden proves a very satisfactory snippet of the good green season of outdoor occupation soon to come.