Category Archives: Nature

Those Rosy Roses

It’s been nine years since we transformed our concrete dessert of a back yard into a place where roses grow.  Every May, the vines burst forth in riotous profusion.  This spring’s long cold spell delayed peak bloom for about two weeks, but once the buds began opening, the flowers were as spectacular as ever.  The pale pink climbing roses on our garage trellis are subtle in color but especially flamboyant in abundance.  After their fabulous spring fiesta, they continue to bloom, but only sparingly, throughout the summer and into the chilly days of fall.  Even early December sees  a few persistent blossoms. 

 

The red double knock-outs along the fence stage their main event in May, as well.  They bloom throughout the summer and fall, with greater frequency than the climbers. 

Kiko’s good looks merit a handsome backdrop, but he cares little about the appearance of his surroundings.  This is, of course, one reason dogs are so well-loved by their people.  A dog is happy to be his human’s sweet prince, whether in a shack or a mansion.   

The battered appearance of our old garage doors didn’t hurt Kiko’s self-image. 

He could sit, proud and regal, on our old porch, even during the squalor of demolition.

But he hated the constant presence of a tether.  No matter how long, it typically stopped short of where he wanted to be. We revamped our porch and back yard not only to add some beauty to our little corner of the world, but also to give our beloved animal a space in which he could roam freely.  Our bounty of roses means even more to me because it represents the process that brought Kiko a greater measure of liberty.  My pursuit of happiness is tethered to his.  Everyone who shares a life and home with a dog recognizes this truth. 

May the roses keep blooming.  May my little dog continue to ramble from sun to shade, from squirrel to fox watching, in his pleasant domain. 

 

For earlier posts on our back yard transformation, see Up From the Concrete, Roses, May 12, 2012; and This is the Way the Roses Grew (And a Daughter, Too) Parts I, II and III, June 2015

And, it’s Official. Summer’s Here!

In the midst of spring’s big chill, which threatened to stick around interminably, it seemed as though summer would never come.  What was it like to leave the house comfortably without sweater, jacket, scarf and gloves?  To sit on our screened porch without benefit of a heavy wool throw, looking like a shipboard invalid in an old movie?  I couldn’t imagine. 

Now, on this first official day of the new season, it seems like summer’s been here for quite a while.  Intense heat and monsoon-like rains bid a sudden good riddance to the lengthy cold spell.  And having brought our daughter home in May after her first year at the University of Virginia, we’re enjoying the illusion of a longer summer.  This is a much-appreciated luxury.  Last summer was for our family one of the shortest, with D’s high school graduation in June and the start of the college semester in August.  Considering my mother’s relocation to Virginia, it was also one of the busiest and most stressful in my recollection.  How pleasant it is to know that this summer won’t require me to finalize the packing up of my childhood home.  My calendar is blissfully free of travel plans. 

Memories of the recent deep freeze still vivid, once the weather began to warm up, I went into gardening overdrive.  I wanted our daughter, upon her return, to be impressed by the beauty of her home environment.  She’d been immersed in the spring glory of the historic grounds of UVA, so the bar was high.  Nearly every sunny day meant a trip to the garden center for more containers, more plants, more soil.  After the frigid cold of spring, the colors of summer appeared even more spectacular.  Our fountain, newly emerged from its heavy plastic winter wrapping, looked bare and dismal.  (Every December that fountain is the bane of my husband’s existence as he drains and wraps it to weather the cold.  He did not want a “water feature” when we reworked our back yard ten years ago, but my daughter and I persuaded him.)  But with pots of bright impatiens clustered around the fountain, it reminds me of those in Charleston courtyards glimpsed through wrought-iron gates.  Even H says it looks nice. 

I’ve experimented over the years, but found that petunias and trailing vinca vines are the best choices to fill the bowl-like containers atop the brick piers along the fence line.  They flourish in extreme heat and sun. 

Our hydrangeas are blooming this year in amazing abundance and variety of color.  Perhaps it was the heavy rains of late spring that encouraged such luxuriant growth.    

Kiko’s favorite summer activity is baking himself in the hot sun on the flagstone patio.  He lies panting alarmingly for extended periods.  When it appears that he may indeed expire with his next gasping breath, he struggles to his feet and trudges to a patch of shade below the hydrangeas.  Before long he’s ready to bake again. 

Whatever your summer pleasures, may you be able to follow Kiko’s example:  seize the opportunity and enjoy! 

Frost in the Cherry Orchard

It is May, the cherry trees are in blossom, but it is cold in the orchard; there is a morning frost. 

–Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard

This sentence referring to the setting for Act I of The Cherry Orchard has been snagged in my memory since I read the play during my senior year of high school.  A blandly innocuous description, it shouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy.  But we were reading Chekhov toward the end of the school year, when the Atlanta heat and humidity were especially intense.  The school lacked air conditioning, and the class was in the late afternoon.  In that stuffy literature classroom, the idea of a May frost sounded impossibly exotic and refreshingly foreign. 

Here in Northern Virginia, it’s not quite May yet.  The cherry trees are in beautiful bloom, but the weather continues to feel wintry, prompting me to dig out my ragged, heavily taped copy of Norton’s Anthology of World Masterpieces.  As I re-read The Cherry Orchard,  I found myself back in that hot third floor room at Grady High.  Over the roar of the oscillating fan, our teacher is asking my friend Tedd, seated in the desk in front of mine, which Chekhov play he’d chosen to read.  The name of the play, somehow, slips Tedd’s mind for the moment, and we all sit in uncomfortable silence.  Our teacher rolls his eyes and prepares a sarcastic zinger.  I know Tedd chose The Seagull.  “The Seagull,” I whisper to the back of his head.  “The Seagull,” Tedd replies, just before Mr. Moate can comment. 

Memory is capricious and contrary.  My recall of necessary day-to-day details of life management (where did I put my mother’s tax file, did I actually pay that bill, what is that password?) is often hazy.  When called upon, my seventeen-year old friend couldn’t recollect the play he’d read the night before.  I hadn’t read it, but I remembered then that he did.  And thirty-nine years later I still recall that largely irrelevant fact.  To this day, I haven’t read The Seagull.  But I know at least one person who has.    

As for The Cherry Orchard, it spoke to me.  That year, in Mr. Moate’s class, I gained a valuable bit of wisdom about great literature:  it endures because it offers a powerful expression of enduring truth.  As a high school senior, I was impressed by the surprising relevance of this nineteenth-century Russian play.  The self-absorbed characters, each engaged in his or her own, if frequently interrupted soliloquy, occasionally approach but rarely connect with each other.  I recognized this behavior.  In a margin, next to highlighted passages, I’d written: Yes!  This is what we do!  When we wander too long in the isolated wilderness of our own minds, we let the people and places we profess to love slip through our hands. 

It’s been many years since my first reading of The Cherry Orchard.  I still play the role of daughter, but now as a middle-aged wife and mother, living in an exotic foreign land of the future.  I’ve seen frost on cherry blossoms.  And I appreciate the sad, true absurdity of the story all the more.  Chekhov’s characters and their perpetual inner struggles still resonate.  And if they were to find themselves here in this icy Northern Virginia spring, bundled in their traveling clothes, they could join our dog-walking group and feel right at home. 

The Promise of Spring

On this first day of spring, the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks is menacing the east coast.  It’s been dubbed Winter Storm Toby, apparently.  A cold rain falls here in northern Virginia, likely turning to snow later in the day.  March, we are told, has been colder than February for the second year in a row.  It sure feels that way.  Every morning, as I check the weather on my phone in preparation for walking with Kiko and our pack, I’m dismayed.  Another frigid day, often accompanied by biting winds.  I’d hoped to have packed away the long underwear by now.   

The famed Nation’s Capital cherry tree blossoms are on hold.  The forsythia is making only a half-hearted showing, as are the daffodils.  I’ve seen only one crocus.  It looked lonely, bedraggled, and full of regret.  Not a trace yet of the grape hyacinths I planted two falls ago that bloomed so beautifully last year.  Very few touches of green have appeared on winter’s gray-brown palette.  Spring remains in hibernation.

March really took to heart that old saying about coming in like a lion.  At the beginning of the month, our area, like many parts of the east coast, was besieged by fierce gale-force winds for two days.  Uprooted trees and branches, snapped like toothpicks, wreaked havoc on power lines, cars and some homes.  A huge pine sliced through the roof of a home in our neighborhood like a sharp knife through a birthday cake.  It narrowly missed the little daughter’s bed. 

We were lucky. We were spared any property damage, and no family members were trapped on roads or in airports.  Our daughter arrived safely home for spring break to a dark and rapidly cooling house, but we had no cause for complaint.  (Why, I wonder, must the week of spring break always be among the year’s coldest?  Some of the few snows I remember from my college days in Athens occurred during spring break.)  

When the winds at last died down and we ventured out to clean up the debris-scattered lawn, I gathered some of the branches blasted from our maple and cherry trees, brought them inside and put them in water.  Many of the buds have opened now.  Bright green maple seedlings and delicate white cherry blossoms attest to the promise of spring.  I have the evidence.  The season of new life may be biding its time, but it’s coming.     

Spring knew best to wait.  The rain here has turned to sleet.  Ice crystals weigh heavily on pine branches, and white patches are visible around the bases of trees.  May this spring storm be winter’s last. 

Front Yard Squash Gardens ’17

This past summer, we were treated to not just one, but two spontaneous squash gardens in our front yard.  The expected pumpkin patch popped up in the maple stump compost pile, as it has for the past two years.  (See posts from November 2016 and July 2015.)  Another, even larger, sprang up in the mulch bed nearby.  The hard-working, fast-moving vines claimed many square feet of ground, producing big fuzzy green leaves and bright yellow blossoms. 

 

Pale yellow pumpkins, elongated ovals, grew from some of the flowers.  Others produced dark green fruit of similar shape.  And still other buds grew into beautifully ornamental gourds of yellow and green, some warty, others with smoother skin.  In the photo above, a knobby-skinned gourd is partially visible just to the left of the pumpkin.  I found no discernible differences in the foliage, although two types of vines must have been present.   

Many small proto-pumpkins appeared, but most were claimed by squirrels or deer.  Our fall harvest consists of the three tall guys in front. 

The gourds were evidently much less popular with the critters.  A few succumbed to nibbles, but seven small long-necked gourds survived until fall.  

The spontaneous pumpkin patch is the lazy pseudo-gardener’s dream, as  it requires neither planning nor planting by human hands.  Simply compost pumpkins past their prime, and let nature take its course.  This year’s harvest could fill a sizeable Thanksgiving cornucopia to overflowing.  I wonder what our little patch of earth will bring forth next year?

All is safely gathered in, ‘ere the winter storms begin. 

Fall’s Last Blast

On today’s sunny afternoon walk, the colors were dazzling.  Seemed like we could feel it in the air:  fall’s final, fleeting burst of intensity.  I thought of a light bulb that glows suddenly brighter before it sputters out.  It won’t be long before icy winds whip these last flamboyantly hued leaves from the trees.  As November yields to December, nature’s grays and browns are mustering forces. 

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We’ll counter by filling our homes with twinkling lights and sparkly stuff, with evergreens and berries.  The Holiday Season will be upon us, ready or not. 

Front-Yard Pumpkin Patch, ’16

 

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For the second year in a row, the maple stump compost pile in our yard has become home to an unplanned pumpkin patch.  (Regarding last year’s patch, see here.)  In early summer, dark green leafy vines began to appear.   Each day they covered more ground, sending out wiry, pale green tendrils that grabbed hold and anchored firmly to blades of grass.  Bright yellow blossoms began to sprout from long, thin shoots on some of the vines.   

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Other vines near the ground began to form tiny green bulbs topped by buds that then developed into blossoms.  As I discovered last year, these are the female blossoms that bear fruit if pollinated by bees.  The blooms attached to thinner, longer shoots,  like the one shown below, are male blossoms, and not destined for pumpkin-hood.   

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Like last year, two types of squash vines flourished in our patch.  Those bearing larger, dark green sharply tri-lobed leaves produced pale yellow pumpkins.  Those with somewhat smaller, lighter-colored leaves brought forth acorn squash, like the one shown above.   

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Deer and squirrels claimed some of the bounty, naturally.  Our fall harvest yielded three pretty pumpkins in shades of pale yellow, and two acorn squash.  One of these remained green.  The other turned almost entirely orange after picking.   

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In recent weeks, as the vines became increasingly brown and dry, the deer seemed to find them more appetizing.  In short order, long after the last blossoms had withered, they nearly decimated the patch.  Every evening around dusk, they could be spotted gobbling determinedly at the bristly plants. 

I thought our pumpkin patch was over and done for the season.  But this morning, in the chilly gray light of November, I noticed that one short section of vine remains green and leafy.  And one small proto-pumpkin was there, too, sprouting a bright, healthy flower.  The days are short, the weather has turned cold, yet the vine still bears fruit.   The perseverance of life, its push to endure despite the odds, never ceases to amaze me.   

The Hydrangea: Summer’s Essence in a Flower

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No flower captures my idea of the essence of carefree summer quite like the hydrangea.  Once the hydrangeas are flourishing, the school year and its unforgiving routine have ended.  There is time once again for the leisurely enjoyment of a sunny morning. 

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The big, bobbing heads of hydrangeas feature prominently in childhood memories of my grandparents’ Kentucky farm, especially of July 4th family gatherings at the old house on the banks of the river.  And some of the most magnificent hydrangeas anywhere adorn the little cottage complex that becomes our home for a while every August in Cape Cod.  Hydrangeas mean summer, past and present.   

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Hydrangeas were among the first flowers we planted when we moved into our house eighteen years ago.  We added more when we undertook our backyard renovation.  The hydrangeas around our house remind me of the days when my daughter’s idea of a grand adventure was splashing in her little inflatable pool on the lawn.  Hydrangeas mean warm sunshine and happy, uncomplicated times. 

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I didn’t have much hope for our hydrangeas this year.  After the heavy snows of our frigid winter melted at last, much of the early foliage was black and shrunken.  The buds appeared stunted.  But as the weather warmed, the flowers rallied.  Right now, on this July 2, they are more beautiful, and more widely varied in color and depth of hue than I can remember. 

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Hydrangeas are likely to wilt soon after they’re cut unless given special treatment.  To prolong their freshness considerably, follow this method:

Immerse the stems in water immediately after cutting.  Heat a cup of water to boiling.  As you arrange the flowers, and just after you recut each stem to the chosen length, hold it in the hot water for thirty seconds.  Add the stem to your arrangement in a container filled with room temperature water.  The flowers should look beautiful for several days and perhaps up to a week.  

Could it be. . .Sunshine?

Rumors of sunshine today in the Northern Virginia rainforest prompted me to take a closer look.  Could they be true?  By all official weather reports, it’s been raining here forever.  Could it have actually stopped, however briefly? 

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Hallelujah!  Nothing wet is falling from the sky.  The gray world has color again.  Although much-delayed, our roses are in beautiful bloom.      011

Kiko managed to locate a sunny, less-sodden patch of grass for his morning squirrel and fox watch.  I think I’d better follow his lead and get out there. 

Thunderstorms are expected this afternoon.