Gardens: Love Letters to the Future

Gardeners don’t fear critters, bugs, disease, or even frosts. The one thing a gardener truly fears is the fate of our gardens after we are gone.

The act of clearing, planning, planting, and nurturing a garden is belief in tomorrow – a love letter to the future. A gardener lives in anticipation of the season ahead and what surprises will spring forward. When you dig and turn that first shovel of dirt, a pact is made – between earth and gardener: I will tame and care for you and, in return, you will care for all who visit here.

Over a decade ago, our rescue’s founder, Jody, put a stake in overgrown ground and declared it a garden. The Homeward Bound Memorial Garden rose from waist-high weeds and thistles and clay to a place of peace and beauty over the next decade. But Jody rarely found time to tend to it. It was too much in view of dogs, volunteers and adopters – making it too easy for her to be interrupted and called away.

Several years ago, in a back corner of the property, Jody and her sister started clearing another piece of overgrown land. They created an oasis of raised beds, an orchard of fruit trees, a she-shed, and even a fire pit. Hidden from view, we all knew that this was Jody’s place of quiet, solitude and restoration. She monitored for emergencies, but rarely answered other calls when working there. Unexpectedly, it served another purpose: it strengthened our team and made us more self-reliant and resilient. It was to be her retirement project.

When she became ill last August, the garden was abandoned. Fruits and vegetables rotted on the vine and ground.

Winds sent beloved pieces of found art sailing. The weeds began a march to reclaim their territory.

It would have broken her heart to see what has become of her labor of love.

I asked permission of her husband to begin the work of rescue before the earth swallowed it back up.

This is a job much bigger than one person. But one can start. I cleared my way through the first stretch of jungle this weekend, digging out thistles, uprooting Johnson grass, freeing trellises and tomato cages from their tangles, and uncovering hidden treasures.

It reminded me of the first months in the Memorial Garden. It reminded me of her.

I will look to build a small team dedicated to its upkeep. In its ample space, we could feed an army of community hungry.

In its restoration, we can send our own love letter.

Winter Skye

Two weeks ago, the asters and Mexican marigolds were still in bloom. Mother Nature can so easily lull Northern California gardeners into false hope of early spring. The narcissus have flowered, the tulips, hyacinths and iris are rapidly making their way. But grey skies and a cold north wind blew in today, with the promise of a hard freeze Monday night.

I was there early for puppy duty. German Shepherd, Annie and her newborns are just visiting. Found stray and very pregnant, she was sent to the shelter. Shelters don’t generally do newborn puppies. Our local GSD rescue pulled her, but reliant on fosters, they had never whelped puppies before. We offered to see her through the birth and their first few weeks before they move to their foster home. Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, our volunteers sat vigil. She birthed six beautiful babies and took to mothering immediately.

Puppy duty at this young age is not hard. It is more about being available to mom for frequent feedings, some cleaning, potty trips and breaks – leaving plenty of time to prepare the garden for the cold ahead.

New shoots and tender perennials are now blanketed in straw.

The sparrows believe it is theirs to nest in.

We began our rescue year with the walking wounded. Broken and fractured pelvises, traumatic nerve damage, one fractured vertebrae; one fractured femur, and a torn ACL. Cars and dogs don’t mix.

My current foster could be counted among them – but his issues are hereditary not inflicted.

At just a few months of age, he was diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. Skye traveled a very long way for our help. He has interest from lots of potential adopters who want to bring him home once fixed – but so far, no one who meets our criteria has stepped up to see him through two FHO surgeries and months of recovery.

So, Skye is hanging out with us. He will have his first surgery on February 10 and his days of torturing his big foster brother Yogi will be over. Despite the abuse, I know where I will find Yogi when we bring Skye home hurting and sad: sleeping right by his side.

Note to potential adopters: four months is a long time not to fall in love with a dog. We are not looking for dog number three – but just saying!

Bundle up your tender fruit trees and plants, my Northern California gardener friends. And to those of you back east – you can stop laughing at us. Revenge is ours. Just wait for February!

To Dream A Garden

“I knew it would be bigger…but…”

We had an honored guest in the garden this weekend.

Laure is a master gardener and the original architect of the Homeward Bound Memorial Garden going back more than ten years.

Her design drawings are still housed in our shed, although the garden has morphed quite a bit over time.

The plan called for themed beds. Some, like the White Garden and Rose Garden bed are still as intended. We found that others like the Iris Bed were magnificent in spring but did not offer enough interest later in the season. Things got moved around, repeating patterns of color and shape throughout. It makes for a cohesive approach that moves in waves from one season to the next.

The original plan was much more tidy than the garden today. But crowded beds offer more cooling root protection in our hot summer (and fall!) months and help to keep the weeds at bay.

What Laure was marveling about most was the size of the trees. Back then, the garden was bathed in full, unrelenting sun all day long. Now, the trees have matured and we find we need to move plants into pockets of sunlight outside their shade.

She arrived just in time to see the asters in full fall bloom. And she marveled that a seed of an idea for what she called a “collar tree” became the metal weeping cherry tree whose branches are adorned with the tags of dogs who have come through our doors. To dream a garden and see how that it has flourished…

We learned the garden will be acquiring a new feature. A small chapel is planned as Jody wished to house the ashes of the Homeward Bound dogs who came to live with us in Sanctuary or who were helped to the bridge to end their suffering. Jody kept their ashes in her home all these years with dreams of a final resting place for them.

Life and family commitments pulled Laure away. But she laid the foundation of what this garden has become. We hope that she will return with the time is right. In the meantime, she has plans and plants to share that will assist our Monarch friends. A beautiful addition to our beautiful garden.

The Gardener’s Shadow

We are sizzling this week. I have been giving the garden an extra evening drink when possible, and I am lucky to have a garden buddy to watch over things when I cannot be there.

Rob is our primary dog photographer at the rescue, the author of Rob & Dog, and a recognized dog whisperer.

He reintroduced me to photography years ago when I began working in the garden. I studied photography in art school but adopted the snobby bias of my painting professors that photography was somehow beneath the “fine arts.” Age begets wisdom. I have come to my senses.

Rob is a constant presence at the rescue working with the dogs, guiding some of our special needs pups, and always willing to watch over some of the special needs plants.

This week, he oversaw the newly (and too-lately) planted Agastache and Rudbeckia. I don’t typically plant in the heat, but the spring shipment was delayed in our crazy Coronavirus world. The starts are still alive and thriving despite the heat. I had no doubt.

He also shares in watching over the feral garden cat, Freida (Frieda, Frida…we never actually settled on the correct spelling of her name).

For years, we have put food and water out for her. We provide shelter from the heat, cold and rain in the shed and in her igloo close by. Over time, she has gradually let us come ever closer. These days, she will sit out openly and watch us from a few feet away and waits on the porch for her meals.

We have an unspoken competition: who will be the first to pet her?

I envy Rob’s talent with dogs, am thankful for introducing me to the lens again, and am grateful to have someone to watch over the garden and all its creatures when I cannot be there.

“The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” ~ Author Unknown

Nature Will Improvise

We need new descriptors for gardening in our valley now. Thanks to climate change, “full sun” should be relabeled “scorch-resistant.” Beyond “drought tolerant” should be a new category: “desert-like.”

Everything I thought I knew about the garden has changed.

“Despite the gardener’s best intentions, Nature will improvise.” ~Michael P. Garofalo

Nature will improvise. But our gardens, as we have known them may be forever altered. Plants that once sought daylong sun now shrink from the blazing afternoon heat and require shade relief.

In years past, we had to provide protection for a couple weeks of 105 to 110-degree weather each summer. Now, most days from June through September brush or crest the century mark requiring a very different strategy for a garden that is not visited by its keepers daily and can only be partially served by a drip system.

Mulch is a necessity, but not near plant bases to ensure the water reaches roots. Planting in mounds surrounded by moats allows water to collect and pool while still providing good drainage. Systematically amending the clay soil with compost and leaf mulch helps it retain precious moisture, deliver nutrients the plants need, and supports an ecosystem of beneficial microorganisms.

Extra steps are required to support those who visit as well. Shallow trays of water are placed throughout the garden for thirsty birds, bees, and butterflies.

Tall, airy plants help to shade more tender varieties while still letting light in.

They also provide shelter for birds and butterflies from the baking sun.

With the cooler temperatures and a fall bloom, our hummingbirds and butterflies have returned to feast on salvias, penstemon, asters, zinnias, California fuchsia, and verbena.

I will have to get used to seeing these friends early and late in the season but not in the heat of summer.

“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.” ~ Jay Inslee

Absence

Often, the absence of something is felt as tangibly as its presence.

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one—two-legged or four—knows this. The silence when returning home or the space in a room previously occupied by their being feels loud and hollow. The empty void as weighty as their once physical presence—leaving regret for ever having taken our time with them for granted.

This spring, the garden was filled with swallowtails, painted ladies and cabbage butterflies.

Now, there are none.

Two weeks ago, the hummingbirds were so busy drinking from the Agastache that this one ultimately decided to pull up a seat at the bar and rest while feeding despite the annoyance of my camera.

Since then, there have been none.

The garden is full of flowers that attract birds, bees, and butterflies.

The bees are plentiful and enjoying their solitary feast,

but the hummingbirds and butterflies are noticeably absent.

It was an unusually long, wet and cool spring but in the late two weeks, it has been unusually hot—record-setting hot. Hummingbirds must feed all day to sustain themselves, but they avoid the heat and seek shaded shelter.

If the nights are too warm, they cannot recharge. The result can cause malnutrition and exhaustion.

I prefer to hope that they have found another, more abundant source of nectar and tiny insects to feed their growing young somewhere—but the suddenness of their disappearance is disturbing.

Butterflies depend on a succession of blooms from spring to summer.

When they come too early, their life cycle is disturbed—potentially irreparably.

Have we altered our planet so significantly that even the havens we have created are inhospitable?

“You think you can fix everything, change everything. But there will come a day when things cannot be fixed. And, you know what, it will be a day just like today”. ~ American Indian elder, quoted by Kent Nerburn.

The garden is still beautiful, but it is not the same without the flying friends who usually accompany it.

It is quiet. Ultimately, the garden depends on the pollination these winged wonders provide to ensure its longevity. And not just the garden – our food supply. Without the bees and birds and butterflies, nature is in jeopardy.

What legacy do we leave in our wake?

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~American Indian proverb

Dear hummers and butterflies,

the flowers anxiously await your return…

as do I.

Taking the Hill

Originally, it was a mountain of tangled blackberries – home to snakes, thorns and the occasional bunny.

The brambles were replaced with raised blueberry beds – that fried in the summer heat and invited Bermuda grass, morning glory weeds and few blueberries.

Last fall, the bed frames were demolished to begin anew.

The vision was an extension of the adjacent California-themed garden.

The challenge: that bed sits near the top of the garden. When we get big winter rains, the water passes through and collects where the raised planters were until our clay soil will finally absorb it.

The solution: Mounds. Hills. Berms. Whatever you want to call them. They are raised high enough that the soil drains well.

Last fall, I brought in fresh soil and compost, covered them with cardboard, another layer of soil on top, and a final layer of mulch to let them “cook” over the winter, planting only those things that truly required fall planting. Maria and I created paths between the bed sections for weeding and planting access without compressing the soil.

And this spring, I filled the new beds to the brim with California natives and the Mediterranean standouts that I have long coveted.

The result exceeds my expectations already.

I know that I have installed more than the bed can handle long-term. But crowded beds ensure cooler roots in our hot, dry summers. And things can always be divided and moved in coming seasons.

The new beds are already bountiful and thriving in the conditions created for them.

Native Ceanothus, Poppy, Erysimum capitatum (“Western Wallflower”), California Fuchsia, Penstemon eatonii “Firecracker Penstemon,” Delta Sunflower, and Salvia spathacea  “Hummingbird Sage.”

Mediterranean garden favorites: Crape Myrtle, Cerinthe major, Verbascum, Lion’s Tail, Blue Fescue, Verbena, Gaura…

And a little happy Penstemon and Geum thrown in for good measure.

It’s not to say that the Bermuda grass and morning glory weeds have not attempted a comeback. But it is just so much more enjoyable to do battle with them when surrounded with this beauty.

Lesson: Never be afraid to start anew.

Like our friends Bodie, 14

and Summer, 15 –

both beginning new chapters in their glory years because kindhearted people believed that their best beauty was still within.

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.” ~ Louis L’Amour

 

A Garden Is Not a Place

“A garden is not a place: it is a passage, a passion.

We don’t know where we’re going;

to pass through is enough;

to pass through is to remain.” ~ Octavio Paz

I am never alone in the garden. When all have left and I have it to myself, I am still surrounded by the memories of all that remain.

Fall Garden Project Number One

No, really, there are no remains in the Memorial Garden…although you might suspect otherwise if you saw this.

While we were away, fall signaled its arrival.


Just hints so far, but the creatures know.


And with cooler days come a mountain of projects. First on the list: a complete demolition and re-do of the raised bed area of the garden.

Once, these housed a mountain of overgrown and deadly blackberry brambles. They spread their spikes throughout the garden, so they were banished to the perimeter a few years ago where they (and the bunnies) thrive safely out of the dogs’ paths.

Blueberries, California Poppies and a bed of Rosemary took their place, but the spot was too dry and hot for the blueberries, the boards were rotting, and the Bermuda grass was winning the war on all fronts. I have learned to let nature have her way…to a point which does not include Bermuda grass!. So, the raised beds have been razed and the blueberries donated – and in their place will be gentle mounds hosting native and drought-tolerant selections more appropriate to the site while echoing other sections of the garden.

The first order of business, however, are trenches.

When it rains, everything on the property flows from the dog yards and kennel to the garden. It helps to keep the dogs drier (our first priority) but creates lakes in the garden. We lost one tree this year to the swamp that collects in the center; we want to prevent that going forward. So, in the design are trenches and mounds – to act as catch basins for some of the deluge while keeping drought-tolerant plants high and dry.

Maria helped me with phase one: the blueberry and box frame removal while unearthing and capping the existing irrigation.

Nash came to the rescue to cut down and remove the heavy redwood boards.

And while the dogs did not quite grasp the principle of sled dogs to help in moving wheelbarrows of gravel,

Kermit the cat was happy to provide supervision and amusement.


A few plants will go in this fall to get established, but mostly, we’ll fill the bed with fresh compost and leaf mulch and let it “cook” over the winter to be ready for spring planting. I have learned the hard way: preparation and patience pays rewards in the end.




What’s on your fall garden list?

The Lost World

The failing 40-year-old fence had to be taken down before it fell down. Shared with our 92-year-old neighbor of 20 years, it took some convincing, first – and then it took some major clearing.

While our side was relatively clear of vegetation, her side had become a jungle of tangled, massive ivy that had swallowed what was once one of the most treasured and admired gardens in the neighborhood.

I’m now sure exactly when her husband passed; I knew that she had already been living alone for at least ten years before we moved in two decades ago. The garden was her pride and joy. She would spend hours tending to the magnificent azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns and hidden treasures. This is the view of one of them from our side.

Until about 10 years ago, she would bring in gardeners to do major clearing, pruning and tending. But as time went on, that ceased and the ivy began swallowing up the garden and the fence with it.

When our Yogi threatened to bounce it to the ground in his hunt for critters, it was time to address it.

And just about the only way she was going to allow it to be cleared for the replacement was if someone she trusted did it. So the task fell to me.

She is of surprisingly good, but frail, physical health. Especially considering that she has smoked her whole life and had heart bypass surgery 10 years ago. But the years of living alone have taken their toll. While she can recount stories from decades ago, her short-term memory now fails her. If I work when it is cool in the morning, she keeps watch from her patio, calling me over every few minutes to ask the same question again and again. I am happy to abide her, but found that my most productive time is after she has “gone up” for the night…at 3PM.

Part of the offer was to do a kindness to a long-time neighbor on a fixed budget; part was to see if I could recover her lost gem – something I knew she would appreciate and a gardening challenge for me. I got more than I bargained for.

The first task was to ensure the required clearance for the fence work so it could get underway. It began with providing a clearing from which I could branch off left and right, and a way out when returning all of the cleared vegetation – some alive, some very much dead.

I uncovered mature trees that were never planted – they just burst their containers and found ground for their roots;

a tree limb, the weight of which was the only thing holding an entire section of fence in place;

and ivy trunks as thick as trees.

So far, three towering piles have been taken away. And that is from a single small section of the yard required for the fence project.

While the fence was able to be replaced and Yogi secured, the project of reclaiming the garden will continue as time allows. I am careful not to prune too much from her treasured shrubs and trees, but as the light can now enter, the structure and beauty begin to show through again.

The lost world, rediscovered. And with it, a treasured memory will hopefully be restored.

Spring Tuning

There is a magical moment, just before the orchestra begins, when the oboe gives a note and the instruments are tuned in a chaotic staccato of strings, horns and reeds. A short, breathless pause follows as the conductor raises the wand – before a symphony explodes in synchronized waves of sound. The gardener knows this as early spring.

A tulip appears,

then an iris,

an apple blossom,

and tiny Clematis buds unwind –

as if the whole garden is standing tall and ready – preparing to come alive.



We are firmly in that magical period of early spring now.

The heart can literally skip a beat in anticipation –if only the back didn’t ache from the thought of the overwhelming work ahead! Roses and fruit trees to be fed – weeds to be pulled – lawns to be seeded – paths restored – mulch laid. The list is endless. But attacked with joy.

“Spring drew on…and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.” ~ Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

There is another sign of early spring – even more miraculous. More to come.