Appreciating Spring

ground ivy swathI love the smell of the air in spring. It is so sweet, I just drink it in. It’s like honey, only lighter. I have figured out why the air smells better in spring than at any other time of the year. Every tree and bush that possibly can is blooming, some very inconspicuously and others with showy gusto. Maples have tiny flowers, and oaks have long catkins. There are ornamental cherries and apple trees, and lilacs and lots of bushes and trees whose names I don’t know. All of them are throwing their sweet scents into the air. Anywhere you walk, it smells good, and then every so often you pass a particular shrub, a certain tree, and for a minute the perfume intoxicates you.

The colors are amazing. I’m not even talking about the colors of the flowers, simply the colors of all the leaves and foliage that come back in spring, or that have been around all winter and get highlighted by newly juxtaposed leaves.

The colors of spring are not simply an undifferentiated new-leaf green, they are a subtle, wide-ranging palette of greens and browns and reds. Different shadings of yellow-green, green-yellow, mixed in with greeny-browns and true browns. Deep greens of rhododendrons and evergreens and firs, the latter two with light lime-green tips. Japanese maples, of course, start with red leaves immediately, but other trees and plants start in the red range. The leaves of pink dogwood are deep greeny-pink when they first emerge. Rose bushes have new leaves tinged with red around the edges. Peonies send up their red shoots that later turn green. Other plants start right away with dark green leaves, like the violets that begin with deep green shoots. Day lilies start sending up leaves early, though they don’t bloom until summer. The leaves are a medium green yellow, just a little lighter than iris leaves, which start emerging shortly after the daylilies do.

What also pleases me to see in the spring is the way trees and plants get clothed in their foliage. Driving along the highway this spring has given me a particularly good opportunity to observe this. Trees and bushes don’t come to life fully and thickly leaved. It’s a gradual process, which makes the landscape look like a sponge painting for a few weeks. It appears as if someone has taken sponges of different textures and densities and daubed on the foliage. Some of it is very airy and lacy, while other textures are thicker, richer, more opaque. This, with the wide-ranging palette of shades, makes me feel like I am moving through a living painting.


This is how I came to gardening – I wanted to put down roots.

Eight years ago, after I’d been in Salem for some months, and in my current apartment since Christmas, I decided I wanted to plant something in my yard as a way of physically symbolizing that I was putting down roots.

Coming to the North Shore of Boston was the first time that I had moved somewhere simply because I wanted to be there, not for a job or a man. This is not quite true; when I moved to New Haven just before my seventeenth birthday, it was because I chose to, but even then it was to go to school (an alternative high school) and my transition was made easier, possible at all actually, because I had friends down there that I knew from the Yale Summer School of Music and Art.

When I decided to move up here (to the North Shore of Boston), I decided that I was through with constantly moving, and I was going to stay put, I was going to put down roots.

The first place my daughter and I lived up here was two rooms rented from one of the Salem witches. I knew it was temporary, a place from which to find a permanent home, still, it took the prodding of a crisis worker to get me home-hunting when I was given notice to leave so that the witch’s boyfriend could move back in.

I believed that if I treated the two room temporary home as a permanent place, then the energy I put out into the Universe would result in a permanent home.

My youngest brother had been staying with me and my daughter for a couple months, and we finally decided (at the encouragement of the crisis worker) to find a place together.

I very quickly found the apartment we moved into that I’ve had for eight years. It had everything I had decided I wanted. We were still in the same neighborhood. My daughter could go to the same school she’d already been attending. We were right near the first friends I had made up here, including the girl who babysat for Heather. There were enough rooms so we could each have our own bedroom. The landlord had no problems with my being on welfare. And there was a backyard, though I didn’t know at the time how I would come to feel about it.

Where that apartment was located in a way saved my life in the next few years, because when I was deeply depressed and barely able to function, I was, literally, right next door to the grocery store, the drugstore, and the bank.

Later, I found I was on a bus route to Lynn and Boston. I could walk to therapy, and somehow get myself home after a difficult session. There were sub shops and pizza places within a couple blocks, when I couldn’t find the energy to cook. I don’t know what I would have done if I had not been where I was. When we got that apartment we’d moved, by my count, 11 times in Heather’s 10 years of living, more in her way of reckoning it. I wanted to finally stay in one place where I planned to stay, not just find myself in the same place after 10 years by default, as I had in New Haven (which I had to come to love a lot).

One way to prove that I was putting down roots was by planting something. A perennial that would be there year after year, not an annual that died after one summer – that connoted impermanence to me.

I had met a friend, in my first semester at North Shore Community College, who loved gardening and really liked bulbs. She gave me a catalog for Dutch bulbs and I ordered a mixture of daffodils and narcissi. I also planted miniature crocuses.

The second year I ordered from that company I got my peony. I also got my daughter a royal crown imperial, a rather amazing plant that rises out of the ground suddenly in the spring and puts forth a crown of skunk-scented bell-shaped orange flowers, then dies back and totally disappears until next year, when I have again forgotten about it.

I asked my landlord if I could put in a rosebush. I got an inexpensive one at Heartland, but it didn’t take–it lived one year and died by the second summer. I was disappointed, but I felt I’d started to accomplish my purpose. I never did get around to finding another rosebush to put in.

Anyway, there was the rosebush that already lived there, and under which I planted the red tulip bulbs I’d gotten free with one of my bulb orders. And gradually I collected the plants I’ve got now.

So I put down roots. And I did good. I put my roots down deep and sucked up nourishment I’d never had before. Drank deep so that my parched being could begin to unwrinkle itself, unfurl its leaves and fill itself with light.

In turn I nurtured my daughter. I once read that baby plants do better if the parent plant is still alive, even if the two plants are separated by miles. I think my daughter has been like a baby plant, more alive because her parent is alive.

And now I’m pulling up my roots, transplanting them to new soil, a new piece of earth in which to let them take hold.

Moving from the North Shore to the South Shore of Boston. I wonder what will take hold and what will wilt, how my new garden and new life will bloom.

Spring 1994

Learning From Plants

I’ve learned a lot from plants over the years.

I’ve learned really basic, simple stuff, that you’d think would be obvious, like that plants need to fed and watered. Who knew? That plants in our care need us to do these things for them?

patio garden 1

Some of my plant friends

As I’ve worked with plants and gotten to know them as complex beings, I’ve started thinking about the similarities between us humans and plants, and what plants teach us about ourselves and what it is to be human. Sometimes when I think of myself or other people, I think in terms of an analogy to plants.

For instance, one book I read talked about how some people are like spring flowers, early bloomers who give their gifts to the world at an early age. I think of Jimmy Hendrix and other musical prodigies, and the tennis-playing Williams sisters.

There are people who are remarkable and able to make contributions during their young adulthood and middle age, maybe petering out by the time they become senior citizens. Then there are people who don’t come into their own and discover what gifts they have or start sharing them until they’re in their fifties, sixties, even their seventies or eighties. These are the late bloomers, the plants that don’t bloom until the end of the summer or fall, or sometimes even early winter. The folk painter Grandma Moses is an example – she didn’t start painting until she was in her seventies!

When I get discouraged about how long it’s taken me to get to where I want o be in this life, I find it comforting to think about late bloomers and how important it is for there to be flowers that bloom at different times of the year, and equally, how important it is for there to be people whose gifts ripen into maturity at different ages.

When we look at plants and what it takes for each of them to bloom, we realize that what we see is only little bit of what the plant is and what it goes through to give us that blossom. How long has the plant been preparing for its blooming? How much growth has it had to achieve, how many nutrients stored and used, how many changes has it had to endure? All of these take time. For some plants they happen in a very short period of time, other plants take longer, and some plants take an extraordinary amount of time. There is an agave (a relative of yucca plants) that is blooming in Boston, for the first time in its life, I think about 60 years.

I feel I am finally starting to bloom, at age 52. It feels good!

September 2006

Flower Friends

Flowers and plants have always been part of my life.

When I was a young girl, living in South America, I would make garlands of flowers to wear in my hair.

When I was a bit older, I would take the local kids and introduce them to plants in the neighborhood gardens.

Iris WeaverIn my late teens, when depression became a frequent visitor in my life, flowers and plants became real sanity-savers for me.
I was living in New Haven and didn’t have a car, so I walked everywhere.

I would walk with my head down, which meant that I got a good view of the ground. I found myself one spring noticing the first crocuses, and then the daffodils and tulips and other flowers coming along. Across the street from the house where I rented a room was a magnolia tree that blossomed gloriously. I got such pleasure looking at it through the window while I sat working.

Seeing the first flowers and plants coming up gave me joy and somehow lifted me out of my pain for a while. I don’t know what spiritual chemistry plants have to do this, but I have experienced it ever since.

Some years later I was living in Salem and again dealing with deep depression. As spring came on (I was now in school and again without a car), I found where on my everyday routes the crocuses and daffodils were, later the violets and then the roses.
That’s when I realized that I’d been looking for the flowers every spring wherever I lived.

As I got to know a great many more wildflowers and wild plants (commonly known as “weeds”), as well as their cultivated relatives, I would watch for the appearance of all these friends as well.

Now I watch for their arrival in summer and fall as well, and watch the plants that keep some greenery throughout the winter.

I have found a few flowers that bloom in late winter or early spring and I especially adore their color when all else is still so bare.

This spring look down at the ground and around you to see what flowers are coming up. Watching the process of plants grow and change is a wondrous experience. Bring some fresh flowers into your home, either cut flowers or blooming plants. If those are beyond your financial means, learn to identify wild flowers which are free for the picking and just as beautiful in a vase as cultivated flowers. As a matter of fact, many of our weeds are actually plants that once were grown in gardens and escaped to become common roadside sights.

Plants have given me companionship and joy and helped me through dark times. I hope you find your own form of that connection.

February 2003

The Zen of Weeding

The Zen of Weeding

With all the gardening I’ve been doing this summer I’ve done a lot of weeding. I’ve started to think of weeding as a meditative activity. It can be tedious, tiring, boring. It can also give you contact with plants in ways you otherwise wouldn’t have.

I find that when I’m “in the zone”, just pulling out weeds (plants growing where they are not currently wanted) I don’t feel like there’s anything else I’d rather be doing. MugwortI am enjoying the feel of the plants and the earth. I love studying the plants and learning more about their structure and how they grow. It is really amazing to start pulling out a plant like mugwort (a common “weed” that is actually a sacred plant in some cultures and a very good women’s herb).

I pull out the part of mugwort that’s growing above ground and a bit of the root and I think I’ve got all of the plant, but then I pull out another one and find that it has a l-o-n-g root that goes running for several feet under the surface of the soil.

A yard or two away I find that the plants growing there are actually attached to the root that I am pulling here. Who knew mugwort had such a large, connected system of roots? It makes me think of the connectedness of all beings, a connection that is hidden to everyday sight.

When I pull out plants I can see close up how the leaves grow out of the stem, where the flowers attach, how the seed pods look.

Did you know that ragweed, that much-reviled plant (yes, I’m allergic to it) actually has beautiful leaves, and tiny little green flowers? There are separate male and female flowers, both on the same plant. The pollen gets blown by the wind to other plants so they can be pollinated and make seeds. It’s this wind-blown pollen that gets in our eyes and noses and makes us so miserable every August and September, and the pollen can travel for hundreds of miles on the wind.

I generally leave a few ragweed plants in my garden because I know I’ll be subjected to pollen from everywhere anyway.

The quiet connection with the plants that I feel when I am weeding is grounding and is its own sort of meditation. I say little prayers for the plants are going to the compost heap, as well as the plants that stay in the ground and continue to grow.

July 2002

Sans Depression

smiling sun faceGoing out into the sunlight this morning and feeling the warm air on my skin made me glad to be alive. I was joyous.

So different than I have been so many hundreds of days in past springtimes.

I felt that there was no way not to feel delight and joy in the weather, greeting the plants, feeling the sun. How could I not feel uplifted and cheerful?

And I remembered those hundreds of days when no amount of sunlight and joy could move the stubborn depression that sat on my heart and dimmed all I saw outside. No amount of sweet, warm air could blow away the heaviness sitting in my body. No matter how many flowers threw their colors and scents at me I couldn’t catch them, they fell uselessly at my feet.

I could tell you in great detail how I rose from the depths of the Netherworld, but that would take more time than we have on this gorgeous day.

All I will do today is give thanks that on this day I can see and feel the delight of what is around me.

Plant Friends–Banana

banana tree in an atrium

A banana tree

Yesterday I was so excited because I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in almost 50 years! Well, about 48 to be more precise. Maybe I’ve run into him at a greenhouse or two without really noticing, maybe even this greenhouse, but this time I really saw him. A banana tree.

The last time I remember seeing banana trees was in Paraguay when we lived down there in the 1950s. I remember the banana trees–they looked sort of like palm trees and had bananas growing on them.

Hand of Bananas

A “hand” of bananas


What was so interesting about the way the bananas grew was that many bunches grew together in what is called a “hand”, and all the bananas pointed upward! I’ve always loved that about bananas.

The encounter was sweet not so much because it brought back memories of childhood, but because it brought back memories of having seen this particular plant friend many times.

Love knows no bounds of time.