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By Sandra Vallie



It’s hot, pushing 100, and I have to wait until it’s cooler to water the heat-sapped garden. Until it’s cooler, or dark, or 7 pm, the time the city allows watering – whatever measure I decide today is the tipping point where the amount of water soaking into the sand is greater than what the bone-dry overheated air is sucking up into itself. In the house, safe out of the sun, I’m anxious looking at the heat-limp plants across the yard. Corn leaves curled into points, drooping tomato plants and cucumber leaves flat against the ground. I know the plants are well-watered; some of what I see is self-protection and some a part of the taking up and giving off of water. As soon as the sun moves further toward the west and I carry water to the plants through the hose, the leaves and stems will fill with water and this limp spread of green will become plants again.


I’m from Michigan and this is my first year trying to grow vegetables in New Mexico. I pretty much planted the garden twice because I hadn’t learned that we can still have below-freezing nights even when the temperature in the day is 80 degrees. How much water is too much and what is enough. Why, when I asked the woman at the nursery about gardening in New Mexico, she told me to not even try. Half the plants I put in my son’s yard last fall didn’t make it through the winter, falling to the cold and what I haven’t learned yet.


For 20 years, I watched peonies, lilacs, tulips, hosta, coneflowers, azalea, iris, daylilies and butterfly bushes grow tall, wide, and fragrant. Lush. Luxuriant and juicy. Moisture in the air reflected the hundred greens growing around the yard and the air glowed. Lettuces, green, red and purple, came in the spring, followed by peas and beans that reached across the raised beds to share the poles supporting plants and pods. Tomatoes grew so fast and heavy they kicked away their cages. Cucumbers ran across the garden to the corn and climbed high enough I could pick the fruit without bending over.


I exaggerate. A little. Lush it was, very different from my yard here, each plant holding to its own space, as if each one feels it deserves only so much water and so many nutrients from the spare soil. I’ve never seen plants grow so slowly; at first it’s almost as if each morning they decide whether or not to push up, out, forward, just one little bit. As if they know that growing higher will put them closer to the sun and they’ll be hotter. My plants in Albuquerque work harder than plants in Michigan. In this place where there is so much space, where I finally feel I can be as big as I am, exuberant, joyful, expansive and – well – lush, my vegetables appear so tentative and afraid.


Cactus spread, although I don’t know that I’ll ever call them lush. There are several in the neighborhood I’m drawn to, even a couple I’m lusting after for their deep, almost hallucinatory red-purple blooms or their improbable flowers, yellow and ten feet above the plant their stalk grew from. Cactus, though, and weeds like the silverleaf nightshade, the most prolific plant in my landscape cloth- and gravel-covered yard, are what led me to write a few years ago after a visit: “Everything green here bites.” I know I’m never going to embrace a cactus or walk barefoot across the goatheads and foxtails to get to them. I yearn to load my arms with heavy-headed peonies and stargazer lilies that are deep enough to serve soup in, although I’m afraid I’d have to drain the remaining water out of the Rio Grande to do it. Before I moved here I asked a friend if I could grow roses in Albuquerque. “You can grow anything you want in Albuquerque as long as you can afford the water.”


The roots of my grandmother’s peonies I carried south are in pots out back, not growing. Soon, not yet, I’ll have to admit what I know and stop watering. I didn’t have time before we moved last fall to lift lilies or divide a few coneflowers. The rose bush by my bedroom window, though, is the same as the one that died in my Michigan garden a couple of years ago, my grandmother’s favorite. There are green tomatoes on the plants and sooner than I know they’ll be full and red enough for dinner. Lush is changing, from the huge bushes and plants that grew in the Michigan rain to the sound of water rushing through the garden hose, the sight of it spreading around the watermelon plants and at the feet of the raspberries, the corn leaves unfolding as the still skinny stalks draw up water from the soil, and the gratitude I feel that I have water to grow food with. The air may not be green from the plants, but the sky is crystal blue. While I’ve written this, it has become late enough to head outside to water and the first flowers on the cucumber plants have opened today in the heat.




_________________________




About Sandra:  My fairly recent move from my job and life in Michigan to Albuquerque, New Mexico, has opened up the opportunity (for which I’m gut-wrenchingly grateful) to write in spans of hours instead of stolen minutes. Although I’ve written mostly poetry in the past few months, I’m enjoying the process of exploring different forms for different subjects. I’ve been fortunate to have a community of encouraging and creative writers in the Albuquerque Ink Slingers, a local Meetup group, and my husband’s graceful willingness to live and work in 100 degree temperatures.


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may sarton p20110614-235734

Moments Of Flowering – 22/52, BlackBerry 52, Golden Valley, Minnesota, June 2011, photo © 2011 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Medium: original Droid snapshot of the last peony in our garden, June 2011. Polaroid effect and text added with Little Photo. Jump-Off from Lotus: Not Even Deep Into The Summer, a haiga collaboration with Robin from Life In The Bogs.


Dark clouds pile high over the hill, whipped cream on dirty snow. The sky smells like damp moss and rotting leaves. I squat in a swarm of rain-ready mosquitoes, and aim the camera toward the one surviving peony not browning at the edges. Though strong, she will falter under the weight of the next crack of thunder, pregnant with hard rain. Aching knees. I swat away a bead of sweat, listen to the pretend shutter click.

The pink peony lures me in, along with a lonely ant crawling toward the vortex of petals, sucked in like the prey of a Venus Flytrap. I think of a page from May Sarton’s journal—Journal of a Solitude, the entry from June 23rd. Summer in New Hampshire could be Summer in Minnesota. The humidity feels heavy. The world has gone mad. Too much happens these days. But the peony rises every year from buried piles of January snow, from the trampling of the mailman over her Winter stalks, from under the tire tracks of the neighbor’s SUV the night it drifted off the pitched driveway and on to the muddy grass.

It takes a whole year of work to bloom. I pay attention to the garden. My whole life comes alive there.



_____________________________



June 23rd


Almost too much happens these days. How can I be enough aware of all that opens and dies so quickly in the garden? It takes a whole year of work and waiting for this supreme moment of the great snow-white peonies—and then they are gone! I was thinking about it as I lay in bed this morning, and also of Mildred’s wise remark, “The roots of love need watering or it dies.” When she leaves, the house is at peace. Beauty and order have returned, and always she has left behind a drop of balm, such as that phrase; so her work here is a work of art. There is a mystical rite under the material act of cleaning and tidying, for what is done with love is always more than itself and partakes of the celestial orders.

It does not astonish or make us angry that it takes a whole year to bring into the house three great white peonies and two pale blue iris. It seems altogether right and appropriate that these glories are earned with long patience and faith (how many times this late spring I have feared the lilacs had been frost-killed, but in the end they were as glorious as ever before), and also that it is altogether right and appropriate that they cannot last. Yet in our human relations we are outraged when the supreme moments, the moments of flowering, must be waited for…and then cannot last. We reach a summit, and then have to go down again.

   —May Sarton from Journal of a Solitude. First Published 1973, by W.W. Norton & Company.



-posted on red Ravine, Friday, June 17th, 2011

-related to posts: The Ant & The Peony, WRITING TOPIC — NAMES OF FLOWERS, Secrets of the Passion Flower, WRITING TOPIC — SPRING CLEANING — (HOMEMADE CLEANING REMEDIES)

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September Red Pepper, Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 2009,
all photos © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.








red pepper study
yellow, green, orange palette
god in the details








Pepper Study: Pepper Pot, Green Before Red, Pepper Leaves,
Hole In A Pepper Leaf, Red Pepper Green, 8 Faces Of A Pepper Stem,
Alone But Not Lonely
, Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 2009,
July 2009, all photos © QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.






-posted on red Ravine, Monday, September 14th, 2009

-related to post: haiku 2 (one-a-day)

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The Ant & The Peony, a garden haiku, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2009, all photos © 2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

benevolent myth
growing in gardens worldwide
do ants open buds?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Do Ants Open Peonies?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2009, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

When the peonies on the side of our house start to bud in June, lines of ants quickly follow. Until a moment ago, I believed that ants licked the sugar off the peonies, helping their transition from bud to bloom. Turns out that’s a myth. According to Robert F. Gabella at GardenOpus, the ants’ annual ritual of  “tickling of the buds” occurs because they are attracted to the sweet resin on the peonies; the buds would open regardless of the ants.

Of course, it’s more fun to bury my head in the compost and keep believing that the ant has a reciprocal and benevolent relationship to the peony, much like the mythology surrounding the ant and the grasshopper — (for more detail, see ybonesy’s post The Ant & The Grasshopper – Ann Patchett & Lucy Grealy). For me, the myth is more delicious than the truth; perhaps the ant wants to keep its little secret.

 
 

Do Ants Open Peonies?, Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 2009, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

A few other Fun Facts about peonies:

 
 
 
 

  • they may not flower until after the first season
  • established peonies can be heavy feeders
  • peonies are especially needy of potassium (essential for stem strength and disease resistance)
  • herbaceous peonies are known to remain in the same position, undisturbed, for over a century
  • after cutting, you can remove ants from peonies by using a mild soap spray or dish detergent (from The Old Farmer’s Almanac)
  • ants do provide protection–they attack other bud-eating pests by stinging, biting, or spraying them with acid and tossing them off the plant (also from The Old Farmer’s Almanac)

 
 
If you are like me, you spend a lot of time digging in the dirt and constantly have questions about plants and gardening solutions. Do you know the names of your flowers? Maybe you have trouble with groundhogs or slugs, or need advice about seed startingpassion flowers, or orchids. You can read more tips from award-winning horticulturist, hybridist, photographer and author Robert F. Gabella at GardenOpus (also found on Twitter!)

 

-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, June 18th, 2009

-related to posts: haiku 2 (one-a-day), Ghost With A Green Thumb, PRACTICE: Digging in the Dirt – 10min

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Bloom On The Prickly Pear, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Bloom On The Prickly Pear, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

mothers past, present
holding up the other half
of a timeless sky

 

 

 

 

 

Prickly Pear Buds, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.           Bees On The Prickly Pear, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.           Before The Bloom, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Prickly Pear Buds, Bees On The Prickly Pear, Before The Bloom, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

 

Post Script: Happy Mother’s Day and much gratitude to ybonesy, Amelia (I miss you!), oliverowl, gritsinpa, ybonesy’s Mom, Jim’s Mom, red Ravine readers who are Mothers, and all the other Mothers who show up and make a difference in the world. May your Spring day be filled with passion and wonder.

 

-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, May 10th, 2009

-related to posts:  WRITING TOPIC — NAMES OF FLOWERS, day after mother’s day haiku, haiku 2 (one-a-day)

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It’s hard to concentrate on feet and toes; yet they carry me everywhere I need to go. My poor feet were so sore after gardening last weekend. I think it was the hard-toed boots. We were clearing buckthorn from behind the house with a chainsaw. The city comes this week to haul the brush away for free.

So we were stooped low to the ground in leather gloves, long-sleeved T-shirts, heavy jeans, and safety glasses, chain sawing these medium-sized buckthorn. Invasive species. Birds like the berries, but they are laxatives. Not good for them. Buckthorns grow like weeds. It was good to let them go. We planted three red dogwoods in their place. And one cranberry bush next to the peonies.

But my feet. My feet are a size 8 (1/2 size larger than they were 20 years ago) and shaped like my mother’s. I thought she had beautiful feet. I saw them a lot growing up in the South where it’s hot and open-toed shoes are the norm. She always kept her toes finely manicured, toenails painted. I remember those 70’s nail polish and lipstick colors, frosted and speckled. I wasn’t much for painting the nails back then. I like it now but don’t indulge much.

Bottom line is I don’t pay enough attention to my feet. I really should treat them better. I notice them when I’m in contorted positions to garden or do yard work. I notice them when I ride the Honda Rebel, Ramona, or the Suzuki Savage, Suzie. They are the only thing between me and the road. They hold me up — a firm steady foundation.

I don’t go barefoot very much. I have tender soles and like something between me and the ground. Unless I’m sitting in the grass or on the deck. Maybe at the labyrinth’s center. I like walking the grass labyrinth in bare feet. Breath anchored to the bottom of my feet. That voice kept playing in my head as I walked. Breath anchored to sounds, to hands, to the bottom of my feet. Grounded and present.

Feet are our ground, the place where the rubber meets the road. Unless you’re a couch potato, a computer nut, a TV freak (I’ve been all those things). Then the butt might be the place you find ground.

It’s my gardening day. I set up a 4-hour a week gardening practice when I was in Kansas City a few weekends ago. It’s part of the structure of my creative work. Last weekend, I bet we spent 6 or 7 hours, back-to-back in the yard. And I’ve got the sore lumbar to prove it. I’m not as nimble as I used to be. But that can’t stop me. I did use one of those garden pads for my knees when I was chain sawing at the neck of those buckthorns. Liz had it when I moved in. She’s got knee pads, too, forest green.

The garden pad is robin’s-egg blue. I found out from Antiques Roadshow that robin’s-egg blue originated in the 1880’s, a favorite color of Victorian times. A woman had an antique copper bracelet with robin’s-egg blue stones. It was worth about $10,000. It would have looked nice around the ankle, adorning the feet.

I recently saw Georgia-born Cat Power on Austin City Limits. She had a bracelet half way up her arm. Metal with a charm hanging off of it. Reminded me of Cleopatra or Wonder Woman. Either way, she wins.

 

-handwritten practice, posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

-related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC – FEET & TOES

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No bunnies in the garden, Easter bunny statue
after a visit by the ghost, April 2009, photo ©
2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.



On Easter Sunday night, the night Patty came over with my ugly rabbit in tow, the ghost was active. We sat in the great room, exhausted but satisfied. The party had been a success. The house was clean (we vacuumed up edible Easter basket grass from all corners of the playroom), ham was in the fridge, the dishes done. Patty, Jim, and I stared at my ugly Easter bunny — Patty found it at Marshall’s — and laughed. It stood two feet tall on hind legs. Other than the basket it carried in its paws, the rabbit was meant to be realistic, not a cartoon bunny. It was painted khaki tan.

When the gate outside the window snapped closed, Jim glanced my way. “What?” I said, knowing exactly why he looked at me. He told Patty that it was the ghost. Like Jim, Patty has a sixth sense. Jim told her that the ghost was matriarchal, that she had been a gardener and wanted the place to be looked after.

Patty looked out into the darkness. It was late. She got up to leave. I walked her to the front door as Jim took my ugly bunny out to the back patio.


The first year we lived here the ghost was most active in the master bathroom. She flushed the toilet at random, sometimes several times a night. One time she bumped me as I leaned over the sink brushing my teeth. Jim had also felt her presence, even seen her—not her face but the old-fashioned fabric of her dress—in the laundry room. I pictured her to be matronly, gray hair in a bun, benevolent but stern like an elderly woman in a Mary Cassatt painting.

But lately she’s been out by the side gate, along a brick path leading from the front porch to the rose garden in the back. That’s where the greenhouse is, too. Jim is convinced she wants to see us using the greenhouse. He thinks my recent project revitalizing the rose garden is especially making her happy.

It is a sweet spot. An old apple tree anchors it, hanging like a weeping willow over the large plot. In the dirt are the graves of two dogs, an entire sprinkler system that no longer works, and several round stepping stones that were (until we uncovered them) buried under debris. The only living remnants of a thriving garden, besides the apple tree, are the several rose bushes, one taller than me by a couple of feet. I’ve told Jim, “Someone once loved this space.”

It must have been lush at one time.




Easter bunny in front of the garden, April 2009, photo © 2009 by ybonesy, all rights reserved




Day after Easter we wake to rain. It’s come down all night, gentle but steady. I stay in bed; I worked hard getting ready for the party, getting ready for spring, getting that special garden into shape for the first round of perennials I planned to plant there soon. Em runs into the bedroom.

“Mom, did you paint the rabbit?”

I’m not sure if I heard her right and if I did, what in the world was she talking about?

“What?”

“Did you paint the rabbit??”

Paint the rabbit? I turn it over in my head. What rabbit?

Jim comes in behind Em. “Roma, the rabbit has green splotches on it.”

Green splotches!?

I get up, trudge to the windows looking out over the wet patio. There the ugly rabbit stands on hind legs. He is khaki tan, yes, but now he has big army green splotches all over him.

“Were they there before?” Jim asks, mostly to the universe. We wrack our brains. I don’t remember them. Em doesn’t remember them.

I call Patty. “Patty, our rabbit has green spots. Big green spots. Did it have green spots last night?”

“No,” she says, laughing.

“Are you sure?”

“I drove around with that rabbit in the back seat for weeks; of course I’m sure. It did not have green spots!”

We develop our theories: water-activated paint, all of us were just too tired to see the splotches, or the ghost has a sense of humor.


Two weekends have passed since Easter. I’ve managed to get more than 40 plants into the flower garden. Two mums, four hollyhocks, three clumps of daisy. I planted the Easter lillies we got as gifts for hosting the Easter celebration. Under the rose bushes I put leafy coral bells, the color of ruddy cheeks, as ground cover.

A patch of columbines sit in the shade of the apple tree, penstemons in full sun, flowering woodruff, soapwort, salvia, coleus for the exotic red-green foliage, evening primrose, Icelandic poppies, a bleeding heart bush. Near the brilliant violet of a plant whose name I’ve forgotten, I seed small marigolds. I can just imagine the bright orange-yellow against the purple in summer. Because I know Jim loves herbs, I plant a large oregano in the corner closest to the back door, and I leave room for the chives he bought at Grower’s Market.

Jim remarks that she’s happy to see the garden take shape. I have noticed less of her. The last time I felt her presence was one morning early in the week after Easter; I went outside, not a breeze in the air, and the gate swung slowly closed. It dawns on me that I had been schooling our pug, Sony, to use the garden as her potty area. Nowadays my refrain to Sony is, “Out of the garden, out of the garden.”

The ghost is happy.

Jim is comfortable with her presence; me, less so. I don’t much like the idea of just letting a ghost be. At one point I suggested that we invite a friend of a friend, a ghost whisperer, to come and at least make contact with her, see why she’s here. Jim looked at me askew. “You’re not going to pay for him to do it, are you?” I know what he was thinking: I know why she’s here.

And the truth of the matter is that I trust his instincts. I can sense that she’s found some peace of late. Or maybe it’s me, finally digging my hands into the earth, taking the patch of land into my care. A few days ago I moved one of the mums from the spot I first planted it. Too crowded into the rose bushes and the flowering woodruff at their base. I planted it in a roomier spot, in full sun.

Mums are an old-fashioned plant, hardy like dahlias and zinnias, a flower I associate with ancestors from a long-ago past. I have a feeling she likes them.





Image, I noticed the image of a face in this photo that Jim took of an ice crack over a hole, photo © 2007-2009 by Jim, all rights reserved   Image, I noticed the image of a face in this photo that Jim took of an ice crack over a hole, photo © 2007-2009 by Jim, all rights reserved
Image, I noticed the image of a face in this photo that Jim took of an ice crack over a hole, photo © 2007-2009 by Jim. All rights reserved.




Postscript: I wrote this as a Writing Practice (later edited) Monday night on the plane ride from Albuquerque to Portland. I was looking through pictures stored on my computer when I noticed the above photo that Jim took two winters ago. It is a shot of an ice crack over a hole. Suddenly the image of a face jumped out at me. It’s a benevolent face, like a young Madonna or the Christ child.

I marveled at Jim’s gift, how he can commune with hummingbirds (they’re back, by the way; just showed up this week) and the ghost of a former matron of the house. Patty says Jim is an innocent, that he has a clear channel to things the rest of us don’t.

This photo made me realize that the ghost is OK. As Jim said when I brought up the notion of inviting over the guy who talks to ghosts, “Not everything has to change. Some things are fine just the way they are.”

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