I love how reading a poem can almost instantly alleviate stress. So I thought I’d share this sweet bit of verse from W.S. Merwin. Not only does it capture the beauty of an everyday moment, it tells us a little story. We learn about the narrator’s history, age, and how his garden exists with or without him. Merwin lived for many years in Hawaii, restoring a few acres of treed land he preserved as the Merwin Conservancy (not pictured above). Lucky for us he did.
If you need a silent moment of relaxation, read this. You can hear the soft chiming as if you were there.
In the garden house
the digging fork and the spade
hanging side by side on their nails
play a few notes I remember
that echo many years
as the breeze comes in with me
out of the summer light
they know the notes by now
so well that the music
seems to be going on
all by itself in the shade
of the roof I made for them
half my life ago
and I see the garden now
far away in itself
reflected in the polished spade
as a place I have never been
while the music goes on
echoing the days
–W.S. Merwin, from The Moon Before Morning, (Copper Canyon Press, 2014). Copyright 2014 by W.S. Merwin.
For another garden poem by W.S. Merwin, click here.
Right now, most gardens are dormant and cold. Mine is a rainy mess of wet leaves and mossy lawn. (Amazingly, in the Pacific Northwest, weeds still thrive in winter, unfortunately for me.) So it’s a good time to look indoors for gardening fun. Here are a few tasks I’ll be doing to care for my houseplants this January.
In winter, most of the United States suffers from a lack of sunlight. The days are brief and clouds dim the sky. When there is sunlight, the light is weak and slanted. So if you have plants in corners, on shelves, on fireplaces, or against walls, reposition them so they are directly by a window, preferably a window that faces south or west. Another idea is to use a grow light.
Of course, each plant is different and some plants like rubber trees and peace lilies don’t like a lot of direct sunlight but unless you live in the Southwest or Southeast, you probably won’t have a problem with scorching their leaves. If you do, move the plants to north-facing or east-facing windows where the sun is either indirect or cooler morning sun. Regardless, they need to be close to a window.
Trim off leafless stems and old blossoms. Look for the brown. Oftentimes because of lack of light, lower more shaded stems die off. If you leave the stems on the plant, they may lay flat on the soil and retain moisture, which creates a swamp effect you won’t want in winter.
I use a pair of large indoor snippers (pictured) to do this and I have a little bucket with which I collect all of my trimmings. It actually feels great to prune away the dead tissue on plants. I also make them shine again by literally wiping the leaves with a wet paper towel. Note, look up your genus of plant online to see if they like that. African violets, for instance, don’t.
Watering is tricky in winter because plants don’t grow so they only need water to retain the leaves and roots they already have. However, homes are usually overly dry from forced air heating and become like deserts. If you have a dry home, consider running a humidifier in the room where your plants live. Another solution is to fill a pot saucer with pebbles and water. As the water evaporates, it puts more humidity in the air. African violets like this kind of situation.
What I usually do in winter is water every 10 days. I water on Saturday mornings, but first I check the soil with a finger. If it feels moist, I push the watering back until Tuesday. If it’s dry, I flood the soil’s surface area. Either way, make sure you have good drainage holes on the bottom of the pot.
Cool But Not Cold Nights
Most people turn their heat completely off or down low at night. That’s a good idea but if your plants are on a sun porch or near a drafty window, they may die from cold. Houseplants, after all, are tropical plants. They like warm air. They also don’t mind and sometimes thrive on temperature drops but if you can keep their area above 60 degrees, they’ll be happier.
In working with gardening clients over the years, I noticed that houseplant owners almost never transplanted plants into larger pots. They sometimes asked me why the plant turned yellow and sagged despite their care. It was usually because the plant had outgrown the pot. The roots were being strangled inside. Houseplants need to be repotted every two-three years, depending on how fast they put on new growth.
I take the start of the new year as an opportunity to not only tidy up but repot my plants. I recommend buying fresh potting soil. Fresh soil gives them aerated material that hasn’t compacted yet and more nutrients. It also gives them a clean start, especially if pests or lichen or any disease has moved onto the plant.
Lastly, transplanting gives houseplants space to really stretch out come spring. When plants have access to water and food, they take off and bush out and grow into the healthy green beauties we love!
In a previous post, you may have read about our new puppy Yvie. She’s an interesting little girl because she doesn’t really look like any dog we’re familiar with.
When we first saw her, we thought she might be a Belgian Malinois. She has the typical sable coloring, short hair, and slim body. But the shelter listed her as a German Shepherd mix. She was smart like a Malinois but didn’t have that high guarding energy. And she didn’t have the long hair of a German shepherd. Also, her round eyes and shorter snout indicated a touch of Australian cattle dog. Then the vet mentioned a Jack Russell terrier, which made me wonder even more.
Is This a Belgian Malinois? Or German Shepherd? Or Terrier?
Curious about her breed mix, we bought an Embark DNA test at the pet store and sent in the mouth swab. Now, the doggie DNA results are back, which both surprised us and confirmed some of what we guessed.
What is the Mix on This Breed?
First, let me ask, what’s your best guess? A Belgian Malinois has that short hair and sable coloring. My husband thought cattle dog from those round eyes and short snout but she was missing the thick body.
Well, Yvie is not fully either. She’s mostly German shepherd and Australian cattle dog, with a little terrier. This makes a lot of sense. She’s super smart like a shepherd and wants to stay busy like a cattle dog. And now that she’s about five months old, we can tell she probably won’t grow very tall. So she’s like an Australian cattle dog with, as the dog class teacher said, “deer legs.”
This matches with her active but highly focused personality. She loves to fetch and is always alert. And now that we know her breed, we understand her better. We get why she’s always looking for something to do. We get why she likes to stay near “her person.” We get why she likes to chew on her yak cheese sticks, which I can’t recommend enough for busy dogs.
One drawback is the DNA test wasn’t inexpensive, but I have to say it’s worth it. It helped us accommodate Yvie’s needs better. She now enjoys more food puzzles, more dog TV on youtube, and more walkies and fetch. And because she’s a happier dog, we’re happier humans!
On the night my husband and I signed our will, our friends acted as witnesses. The four of us sat with the notary at the dining table, signing the documents that would outline how and what our kids would inherit when my husband and I passed away. It wasn’t at the top of my list for Friday night fun but we did it. Little did I know signing that estate plan would completely change my life perspective.
An Inventory of Everything
Later that night as I went upstairs, I ran into my two daughters who were getting ready for bed. As we often do, we joked around and touched base about the goings on of the next day. Then the giggles subsided and we all wandered toward our rooms.
As I lay in bed, I thought about how my daughters didn’t know they’d inherit a house and a car and little nest egg of money. They didn’t know all we considered in putting together our plan: what might happen and what the kids might need. Though the girls knew we’d signed an estate plan, they of course weren’t interested. They had school and friends and work on their minds.
Absently I stared at the closed bedroom door. I thought of my sister who’d passed away in May. She was gone from me, and the earth, forever. So what did I have left? I realized what I had left was just on the other side of the door: my kids. Not far away, not gone from the earth, but just a few steps away! Wow. My son, though far away, was in his college apartment with his buddies. He was a text or phone call away. Wow. I had three kids who loved me. That’s what I had left. Not to mention a loving husband.
How lucky am I? I thought. I get to wake up tomorrow and I could, if I chose, talk to all of them. Spend time with them. See their faces.
A Total Shift in Life Perspective
Slowly, my body filled with a sense of awe. Warmth. I was stunned by the love of my family. My husband. Our pets, past and present. I felt thankful for our friends of that night, and others I’d made over the years. All the experiences and travels I’d had.
As I listed all the good stuff in my life, I grew overwhelmed. Felt the power of gratitude. I couldn’t believe what a wonderful life I had. Yes, my sister passed away, yes, my mother-in-law too. And yes, I’d had health problems this year but still, I was here, on earth in this moment. I felt like the luckiest woman in the world. I radiated a happiness I hadn’t felt at such a strong intensity before. It was like my happiness skyrocketed into space. I floated with peace.
Afterward, I made a choice to enjoy my life as much as I could every day. Actually enjoy it. I’d never enjoyed life. I mostly thought about what was wrong and how to make it better. No longer. I decided to hang on to that wild and wondrous feeling I’d had that night. To be happy. For the first time in my life, I realized being happy was actually a choice, not a thing to work toward or that happened from time to time. I had the power to change my life perspective if I relaxed enough to enjoy the good things. And I haven’t let go since.
Have you ever had an epiphany like that? How do you stay happy? Maybe you keep a gratitude journal. If you have ideas, let me know!
Many of you know this last spring was a tough one for me and my family. My sister passed away from pancreatic cancer and my mother-in-law passed away from a stroke (we think). When that happened, I started searching for dogs to adopt online. I couldn’t help myself. I yearned for some spark of joy in my life. And our kids had been wanting a new pet for over a year. During the pandemic, we lost a dog and two cats. We were ready for a new addition.
But the time was never right. We encountered Covid, its mental health effects, my sister’s illness, my mother-in-law’s passing, travel, a new book release, family visits, and more. But now, fall is here, things have calmed, and we’re ready to bring new life and energy into our home.
Puppy or Grown Dog?
I hadn’t planned on adopting a new puppy. But when I saw this little furry face, I couldn’t resist. Neither could my husband or kids. She, along with her puppy siblings, were abandoned in the parking lot of the Seattle Humane Society. She was taken in at nine weeks old and we brought her home at ten weeks. While her information sheet lists her as a German Shepherd mix, we’re thinking she might be part Belgian Malinois, part Cattle Dog. Maybe with a touch of terrier or boxer? We’re not sure, but we love her nonetheless.
Because we’ve always given our dogs names that started with vowels, we decided to call her Yvette, and Yvie for short. She’s a beautiful girl, full of life and smarts. She already knows many commands and walks on a leash nicely enough. Her favorite thing though is going to outdoor restaurant patios and hanging with new people! She’s all waggy tails and licky when she makes human friends. And since she’s in puppy kindergarten, she’s been making friends with other doggos too.
If you have ideas about her breed, let me know! We just sent in our doggie DNA test so it’ll be interesting to learn the results in late October.
At this time of year, most blooming plants have finished their show and are just enduring the heat until the rains come. Buddleia, phygelius, fuchsia, echinacea, and cistus still offer a few blooms, thank goodness, but late summer / early fall is not when they shine. Here are 7 of my favorite plants that bloom in late August or early September in my garden.
Albizia julibrissin, or Silk Tree (above photo), is an elegant, feathery tree that has a broad canopy and delicate, divided leaves. In August, fan-like, wispy flowers of white and pink cover the surface of the foliage, providing a stunning, tropical look. I love how the flowers sit atop the leaves instead of hang beneath. There’s a purple leaved cultivar named ‘Summer Chocolate.’ Though it likes to bake in the sun, it does have a few drawbacks: the branches can break during strong winds, leaving wounds in the main trunk, and it’s susceptible to verticillium wilt. It also leafs out much later than other trees. But given it’s own sunny space, the tree is a graceful, eye-catching specimen.
Caryopteris x clandonensis, or Bluebeard, is a tough shrub, hardy down to Zone 6. It matches well with our Mediterranean-like summers in the Northwest. It’s drought-tolerant but doesn’t mind our winter rain, needs little to no pruning, and in August blooms with pretty blue flowers. Sometimes branches can be brittle and twiggy but cleaning them out is easy enough. Caryopteris ‘Sunshine Blue’ is a yellow-leaved cultivar that literally does glow like a sun. It will pop with color from far away. It has lighter blue flowers but the foliage really makes this plant worth growing.
I have Clerodendrum trichotomum, or Harlequin Glorybower, planted not far from my patio so I can smell it when it blooms. The fragrance is strong and spicy! It’s known for spadal leaves that smell like burnt peanut butter when rubbed, but that smell is nothing compared to the white starry flowers in bloom. After the flowers fade, shiny, blue berries take their place for a beautiful pattern of pink and indigo. Drawbacks to this small tree include its running habit, where small stalks emerge near the mother tree and its weak, crunchy, breakable stems. Still, the scent of this tree in the heat of August can not be beat! Just don’t prune it, otherwise it will grow into an ugly mess.
Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei ‘Zuni,’ or Zuni Crape Myrtle, is one of my favorite trees for a Seattle yard. You can spot it from a mile away. Stunning magenta flowers, pretty mottled bark, and tight glossy foliage. It’s a smaller, multi-stemmed tree that fits nicely in the corner of a city yard. It needs little care save for a hot sunny location and good drainage.
Rudbeckia hirta, Black-eyed Susans, are an oldie but a goodie perennial. I love the bright, cheery daisy-shaped flowers and sunny color. When happy, Black-eyed Susans, spread voraciously so watch out. But it’s easy enough to put a spade in the ground, cut some out, and pass them onto neighbors. My only complaint generally with Black-eyed Susans is in winter they leave stringy threads about. There’s a cool cultivar called ‘Cherry Brandy’ that has cherry-colored petals with a blackish center. This is more of a bushier, self-contained perennial, rather than thin-stemmed and spreading. It has bold color. If you’re a newbie gardener and want to grow something low-maintenance, any Rudbeckia is a great choice.
Sedum spectabile ‘Brilliant’ is a succulent perennial that grows in poor soil with little water. It starts out with cute rosettes in early spring that then elongate into rubbery stalks whose flat flowers turn from bright pink, to red, to maroon, and finally brown. Even though the stalks dry during autumn, they hold their shape, offering nice structure for winter. And birds feed off the seedheads. Sedum ‘Brilliant’ is an easy care perennial that I do little to except for cutting away dried stalks in early spring. If you plant Sedum ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Autumn Joy’ and the stalks flop over, it probably means your soil is too rich. Think desert conditions with these plants. Sun, well-draining soil, rocks, etc.
Vitex agnus-castus, or Chaste Tree, sends out spikes of a long, blue inflorescences during the hottest part of the season. This tree likes to bake in the sun, and though I call it a “tree,” it’s really more of a tall shrub, forming a rounded habit that will bounce back surprisingly even after the toughest winters. It also loves dry conditions. Good for a parking strip.
For more information on these plants, check out the Oregon State University landscape database. Happy gardening!