Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Winter Sowing

A recent Herb Quarterly column by Jim Long caught my attention. A sidebar on cool season herbs advises planting certain seeds in the fall and early winter. Included in his list are cilantro, dill, poppy and larkspur. Long says he usually plants between Halloween and Thanksgiving but sometimes as late as Christmas.

I have dabbled in fall and winter sowing, without any serious focus or follow-up. But my dill languished this last season and the article boldly predicts superior results from fall sown dill:

If planted in the early winter, larkspur and dill arise out of the ground at the desired time and grow into robust, healthy plants that produce throughout their own cool season.

Robust! Healthy! Unlike my own dill, which failed to thrive. This was undoubtedly due in part to transplanting, a practice that can send dill into a permanent pout. I am cautiously converted and my dill seed is waiting for the happy coincidence of daylight and my presence at home, a coincidence that occurs with great regularity on Saturdays and Sundays.

Winter sowing is a popular topic with an active forum at Gardenweb. Followers are enthusiastic and opinionated. But their practice is a bit different from what I have in mind. I intend to plant the seed in the ground, in a location where I want the plants to grow. Winter sowers plant in containers. As a consequence my seedlings will be harder to spot, especially when covered with decaying leaves.

There is something arcane and and almost mystical about the whole process. Much as with bulbs, I can fantasize at length about what is happening under the ground when the dark damp days of December and January keep me inside.

O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth.

- John Davies, Ode to the West Wind

My seeds will hardly lie like corpses. Tiny sprouts and fragile root hairs will begin to reach through the cold soil without even a hint above ground to betray the small miracle below. The seeds will follow their own schedule, one as old as plant life itself.

It is the stuff of winter rumination, a tenuous thread connecting the gardener to the year's cycle. Chill wind, dark and snow to the contrary, there’s much activity continuing, out of sight.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Giving thanks

A garden provides many opportunities to reflect on larger themes. Thanksgiving, while now distanced from its original bountiful harvest theme,still encourages introspection and an appreciative inventory of reasons to garden. My abbreviated list of reasons to be thankful:

Today’s promised rain. I imagine this soaking rain will, before too long, reach the tulip bulbs and begin the cycle that results in such a colorful display in the spring.

My discovery of a new source for the tulips, Colorblends. I have mentioned this company in previous posts. If the bulbs’ size and health are any indication I am optimistic about my spring garden.

The thyme and flat leaf parsley still growing. It is so satisfying to venture out into the dripping gloom of a late November garden to harvest some ingredients for stuffing (new recipe courtesy of Bakerina).

SO’s uncomplaining willingness to double dig my small raised beds and wrestle the bale size bags of potting mix from the truck down to the garden. In addition, the truckloads of manure he has hauled in must not go unnoticed in this litany.

The arrival of the Thompson and Morgan catalog, a harbinger of the upcoming catalog season. Their offerings are always unique, and though I feel a bit humbled and out of my league when browsing through the pages, I always enjoy the glimpse into a kind of garden I strive for.

The digital camera. My mastery of the SLR is below minimal and my skills with the digital are similar. But the ability to chronicle garden events is vastly enhanced and the ease of use encourages more frequent photographs.

The myriad of jewel moments part of every day in the garden, some of which appear in 100 things.

Candlegrove. This website has been my winter mainstay since it began. It never fails to ground me and remind me that our seasonal celebrations have deep and diverse roots and a rich history.

Other garden bloggers. Their posts have made me laugh, cry, and simply sit and think. They have introduced me to new authors, new plants and new attitudes and I appreciate their sharing.

In an increasingly chaotic world I take comfort from these gifts in my life. Many use this holiday as a reminder to appreciate what good fortune they find in their lives and I am grateful for any nudge toward mindfulness, a practice our gardens can teach us to cultivate.

Ten thousand flowers in the spring.
the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
This is the best season of your life.


Monday, November 22, 2004

Fun with frost

I woke to hard frost yesterday morning, the second of the season. This one, fortunately, fell on a weekend morning. Fortunately? Well…yes. Sunrise was an hour away and a thick fog cloaked everything. I was pleasantly surprised when the wind came up briefly and the fog blew out of the garden, followed by weak rays of sunrise. This presented a perfect opportunity to capture some frost pictures before the icy crystals melted away with the first touch of sun.

Frost can transform plants both mundane and reviled into lacy confections. Witness the seed spike from overly exuberant lemon balm (Melissa officinalis):

Or the invasive garden thug, Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor):

But the Cinderella moment won't last long and soon true identities will emerge from beneath their icing.

Frost is interesting in its own right. Water vapor normally passes through a liquid state before freezing. But in the case of frost, the vapor skips the liquid phase and moves on to the frozen state, a process called deposition. Frost isn’t simply frozen dew.

I once saw a short film clip of ice crystals forming on a window as if painted on with an invisible brush. I would love to devise some kind of time lapse setup to capture the frost forming in the garden, the crystals appearing as if by magic from the atmospheric microcosm surrounding each leaf, tendril and blade.

The morning’s frost was quite heavy.The lawn below my garden looked as if it had been covered by a blanket of snow and the seed heads of the heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides sp.) were capped with thick spiky haystacks of ice:

As the sun rose higher some of the rays found lawn and garden, creating a patchwork of white, green and brown, a brief winter camouflage.

In a few minutes all had melted and it was time to go back inside to warm up and have some tea. Another lovely Sunday morning spent in the garden chapel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004


Many leaves are still hanging on the trees and in the long thin afternoon light they glow, each tree standing in a matching pool of brilliant color. This year’s scarlets and lemon yellows have been some of the best I’ve ever seen, though I imagine I think that every year, and every year it is true. What an incredible gift.

I recently read one of my favorite essays by Henry David Thoreau, Autumnal Tints. This is an annual pleasure. His descriptions bring me right to his side, walking along with the naturalist and sharing his joy at the magnificent colors. However, I do take issue with his dismissal of the science behind nature’s wonders as somehow dry and without soul:
The physiologist says it [ripening of fruit] is "due to an increased absorption of oxygen." That is the scientific account of the matter, -- only a reassertion of the fact.But I am more interested in the rosy cheek than I am to know
what particular diet the maiden fed on

Most students who pursue the botanical sciences do so out of awe for the natural world, awe that learning science only serves to deepen. Knowing that autumn’s brilliant color show results from the cessation of chlorophyll production doesn’t detract from my appreciation of the stunning array of pigments that remain. That knowledge makes the summer leaves more mysterious, as if they are concealing some delicious secret, waiting for the right time to favor us with a glimpse of their complexity beyond the cool green shade.

When the leaves hang on well into November the chances are good that we may experience that glorious phenomenon of a cold bright morning filled with leaves dropping almost simultaneously.

Under normal circumstances the base of each leaf has by now formed an abscission layer, a layer of thin walled cells that eventually break down through enzyme activity. When this layer is weakened the leaf will eventually drop from the tree. But if the weather cooperates with clear skies and a hard freeze the stage is set for a dramatic and sudden leaf fall. This probably results from moisture freezing in the abscission layer. The cells rupture when the sun warms and melts these ice crystals and suddenly a rainfall of leaves begins. This doesn’t happen every year but it is unforgettable, standing under a big tree, watching the leaves pile up around your feet.

Some trees prefer to keep their leaves through the winter. Pin oak leaves are an example of a mascescent leaf, one that withers without falling off. When walking by pin oak trees on a December night the scratching sound of the dry mahogany leaves in the wind hurries behind me like some winter wraith, conjuring up thoughts of a warm room and lamplight.

In Autumnal Tints Mr. Thoreau seems to express a mistrust of science, as if knowledge could somehow snatch away the mystery and wonder of the natural world. I submit that knowing some of the mechanisms of our natural miracles can’t help but foster more wonder. As we unravel one mystery two more are revealed, hinting that Mother Nature really does have the last word and is smiling all the while.

Saturday, November 13, 2004


Our fog season has begun. This valley is visited by dense fog each winter. Flights cannot leave and the airport is sometimes forced to seed the fog. When the temperature dips to the low twenties the fog freezes on the road, creating treacherous driving conditions. Headlights pointing into the fog serve only to reflect and navigation is a matter of watching the fog lines painted on the road, hopefully renewed this past summer by diligent road crews.

But if you don’t need to fly or drive you can enjoy the isolated little world that a heavy fog creates. When wrapped in enough layers to insulate against the bone chilling cold, walking in the fog can be a sensory deprivation experience. Standing at the end of the road that leads to the work orchard, I cannot see a single tree and am astonished at how dependent I am on visual cues. And aural cues are no better. Fog muffles sound much as snow does and is often more disorienting. So I am without visual cues and sounds are directionless. The walk takes on a dreamlike quality.

Driving to work I often leave home under clear skies. But the fog bank is visible as I drive down the hill, a gray blanket insulating the valley floor. I once drove down from a small coast range mountain into a fog bank and was treated to a most bizarre sight. A horse pasture along the road was at the leading edge of the approaching fog bank. The pasture was dotted with horse heads, the bodies invisible in the fog.

This kind of selective detail shows in the garden as well. A sunflower head, seed long since depleted by birds, is etched against a gauzy backdrop. A few grapes, still hanging, show dark purple against a muted yellow haze of remaining leaves. Fog watching becomes a game. Details pop in and out through the day until dusk turns the fog a dark gray and all details blur.

Little wonder that fog plays a leading role in spooky stories reserved for long winter nights. It is otherworldly. This simple weather phenomenon reminds us that we share a common need for the sensory familiar, the touchstones we instinctively use to steer through our daily lives. Without orientation the imagination must fill in, sometimes with unpredictable results.

Gray Fog

A fog drifts in, the heavy laden
Cold white ghost of the sea —
One by one the hills go out,
The road and the pepper-tree.

I watch the fog float in at the window
With the whole world gone blind,
Everything, even my longing, drowses,
Even the thoughts in my mind.

I put my head on my hands before me,
There is nothing left to be done or said,
There is nothing to hope for, I am tired,
And heavy as the dead.

Sara Teasdale
From Flame and Shadow | Macmillian, 1920

I am glad our foggy winters don't have such a depressing effect on me. The fog will frequently burn off later in the day to reveal what has been beyond the veil all along - brittle blue winter sky. And bulbs are waiting to be planted.