That Time of Year

It’s a Monday morning in late December, near freezing outside and so clear the sky was full of stars when I let Travis out at 5:30. My gardening efforts over the past week can be summed up in six leaf bags, seven bundles of twigs ready for pickup tomorrow, and two sore hands. Not very glamorous. It’s the end of the year.

At least we are fortunate in that there’s always something in the garden to remind us we have a green season to look forward to; the landscape is never completely dead. In New England such events take place under a cloak of snow and ice, but down here new shoots only need push through a few layers of damp leaves. For example, the bearded irises a friend gave me a few weeks ago are doing very well and seem quite cooperative as new members of the garden. She sent them with a little sack of bone meal and reminded me to sprinkle a little in the dirt for each plant.

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It is very heartening to plop what looks like hunks of ginger with stiff leaves attached right into the ground, almost on the surface, and to watch them  not only take hold but also start pushing new leaves up. (See the tiny bright green shoot just north of the bottom iris?)

Bearded irises may not bloom their first spring (“They need to live together for a while,” a neighbor once told me), but after that they will bring early spring color pretty much forever. I like to put them in places that will be sunny till the trees leaf out, then shady all summer so the foliage won’t burn to a crisp. They are truly a life-spanning flower to me, stretching effortlessly from a Connecticut childhood to a Texas dotage.

But speaking of things to look forward to, I made a visit to The Natural Gardener one day last week. New plants convey a kind of trust in the future. Things are pretty quiet over there, at this time of year; but it is a very pleasant place to walk around in. Maybe especially when it’s almost deserted.

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I don’t know what your favorite nursery is like, but mine is like a park where you can buy garden things. There are plants of all kinds, as you’d expect, almost all natives or at least very well adapted to our area. Garden art, cisterns, birdbaths and bird feeders, seeds and bulbs and owl houses, wind chimes and rain barrels. There are goats, chickens, donkeys, tree swings, benches, a butterfly garden, a meditation maze, an outdoor classroom and water features.

IMG_1016Even in winter it is a lovely place to visit. You know the customers wandering around are seriously strung out in the gardening department. They are buying things like spinach and kale. The staff is a collection of dear hippies, patient with customers and very loving toward Travis, with lead hippie John Dromgoole at the helm with his long braid and clear annoyance with commercial weed killers and other unsustainable enterprises. Once last spring he helped me drag my over-filled wagon up the little slope to the parking lot.

It’s also comforting to see that real gardeners grow things all the year round down here in Zone 8. I so admire people who tend their raised beds with such diligence, and build pvc arches so plastic can be put in place over delicate plants on freezing nights. Or make tipis of rough wood for bean plants to climb. I wish I weren’t so unruly sometimes. But I don’t have a dedicated staff to put all this amazement in place. It’s just fortunate that I have The Natural Gardener ten minutes away.

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I’d gone over in search of a few bird houses. The little birds – wrens, sparrows, and the like – have been visiting the yard by the dozens, and I was hoping some might build nests in locations that would serve better than what they’ve selected in the past. Not that the nest in my bag of potting soil was a bad idea; it just startled me when I opened the bag to discover a wren perched atop her clutch of teeny eggs. A few mornings later it was a nest of open mouths, and it seemed like only a few more mornings before they’d fledged. I kept the empty nest for a long time, a small thick bowl of tender twigs with a bit of string and one short bright strand of cellophane woven in.

Last year, however, a nest was made in my crown of thorns plant, and that choice came to a tragic end when a fierce wind slammed the almost-empty greenhouse and knocked its shelf over. The crown of thorns survived the fall, but the eggs didn’t. I still haven’t recovered. So I decided to try a few birdhouses.

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Made of bamboo, they are bright and whimsical, looking like giant Easter eggs floating around the back yard. It’s a spot of color in the nick of time, just before our landscape goes all brown and gray.

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This was the view out the front window Saturday morning. Temperature in the 40’s, rain off and on, nothing for it but to get busy with the holiday cooking. Cookies seemed like an excellent place to start. Sensible people don’t bake during the summer in Texas, so once things cool off we just love to fire up our ovens. I’d volunteered to bring some food items to Floyd’s family Christmas and it was as good an excuse as any to make cookies.

DSC_0034Beyond the snickerdoodles, I will spare you any further kitchen shots. I will just note the following weekend efforts: six dozen oatmeal-raisin; a switch to the savory with mushroom gravy (because I can’t really see a holiday meal without mashed potatoes and gravy), and a giant pot of spaghetti sauce. On today’s agenda: assemble two 5-cheese lasagne, bake sweet potatoes for a casserole; and make my niece Chris’s coffee cake – the one with the cinnamon crumbs through the middle and all over the top. I suppose I ought to burn a candle for good luck against creating cardiac disease in my husband’s entire family, but when it comes to holiday eating we’re all on our own, aren’t we? At least my cookies are small.

Rain did not own the weekend, I’m glad to say, although there were many minutes spent just taking pictures out the back door:

DSC_0003The blue version of a birdhouse hangs in our small maple tree at one corner of the fence. Removing all the Carolina jessamine that had overtaken the area opened up not only the space, but also the little tree. I hope it will begin to thrive, now that it’s not choked with jessamine.

It is a little difficult to look at, this time of year, without thinking of Shakespeare.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

DSC_0017Maybe I’m thinking that if some small birds take up residence the singing won’t have to stop.

As long as it was raining, I thought I’d set up the tripod and see if I could capture some of the layers of color that still stand between our yard and the sky.

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It’s as if I have to narrow my vision, let it tunnel down toward the one thing that lives at the center of what I’m looking for. Then be surprised: I go looking for layers of color and end up with an image of the limbs that hold the color up.

It stopped raining. A good breeze came along and drew back all the clouds until the sky was that hard ceramic blue that makes everything seem so intense. Travis and I left the last batch of snickerdoodles cooling on the rack and went for a walk.

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I know I keep going on and on: this is the last bit of autumn color, no, this is! I’d been afraid the rain and wind would have stripped the trees in an hour, so that by the time we finally ventured out, smelling of vanilla extract and cinnamon, all that beauty would be gone. There are a few down sides to turning sixty, and apart from the disappointments of the body, I’d say the toughest one for me is an entirely new awareness of how fast it all goes by.

I just want a little more time with all those colors.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Deaths second self that seals up all in rest:
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by:
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

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