Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Garden is Catching Up

A somewhat late spring, but not bad. Trees are leafing out like crazy. It's been stupidly hot in the 80s. And we've picked up some rain for a change of pace. Here's my boring garden. Oh, April and May are the dullest months of the entire year! Give me July, give me October, give me January -- anything but the vacant glare of spring.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Goodbye, Winter Awesomeness

I have started cutting down the garden and the sadness is unbearable. This was the first year I totally, completely, and head over heals fell in love with the detritus. Truly, the winter garden can be more spectacular than summer's. I think I'm beginning to see summer as either a utilitarian necessity (to help insects) or as cake topped with brownies topped with candy sprinkles topped with pie. No -- the summer garden is the necessary overkill that gets us to the more profound and penetrating echo of winter. The garden succeeds or fails in what it leaves behind. Just as we do.

With the loss of detritus comes the loss of plants that annoy me. I'm ripping out these: 95% of the iris, shasta daisy, giant knapweed (Centaurea macrocephela), Miscanthus 'strictus'. There's never any leaf damage, the number of insects on the flowers is paltry at best. And they aren't native. So I'll make room for some natives I want to experiment with, and I'll also have a crop of seedlings ready to go in June for transplant. More wild quinine, verbena, aster, sedge, liatris, milkweed, etc.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Garden is an Act Against Nature

Here's the thing -- designing a garden, by its very definition, is an act against nature. A garden manipulates and contorts nature through the filter of our cultural and imaginative biases. These biases change over years and centuries and vary by class, gender, race, etc. But why a gardener (or landscape designer) must then throw up their hands and continue to do whatever they want -- even in the face of mass extinctions, ecosystem eradication, and climate change -- is beyond me. We like things how they are even if they hurt us.

A garden of native plants is at least an attempt to understand what we've altered beyond recognition, and heal the rift between our culture and the culture of flora and fauna around us that have given rise to our evolution -- and given rise to our free will to do whatever we like. A garden focused on exotics is a continual affirmation that we know better, that the planet is here to serve only us, and that we can do no harm; this is a delusion endemic to our species.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Pasque Flower on a Deeper Level

The first prairie flower that blooms in my Nebraska garden is always one that surprises me. I’m not even looking for blooms in early to mid April – instead, I’m counting the plants putting up new bits of green, wondering what’s made it through winter. Pasque flower always makes it, rising in a bulb of fuzz, some sort of thick cleaning pipe pushing it up through leaf litter and last year’s decay. In the afternoon sun the soft, fuzzy hairs around its emerging bud and few thin leaves reflect light like a halo. It is in every possible sense one of my favorite native wildflowers.

Pasque flower’s common name is derived from an Old French word for Easter, as it blooms around that time. Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens – which goes by other common names like prairie crocus, twin flower, and sandflower – is native from Alaska south through Canada and down into Texas, blooming in high Plains elevations and open prairie, most often in dry or rocky soil. It gets about 1’ tall with a 2’ spread and is slow to expand or self sow. From bloom to seed head it easily puts on a full month show that, if you let it, opens your eyes to the garden’s season.

The Native American Dakota people believe that each species of plant and animal has its own song that expresses its life and soul. One translation of the twin flower or pasque flower song is this:

I wish to encourage the children / of other flowering nations now appearing all over the face of the earth; / So while they awaken from sleeping / And come up from the heart of the earth I am standing here old and gray-headed.

Since pasque flower can often begin blooming even before the snow has melted, it is fitting to think of it as old by the time the other spring flowers bloom, especially with its white seed head among the colorful prairie. The hairs along the stems and petals help to create a heat shield around it, much like what happens with the hairs on our arms when we are cold.

The Dakota name of twin flower is evident in this image, where up to 150 yellow stamens surround a tuft of purple pistils. This duality leads to the story of an old Dakota man who sits by the first spring bloom and recounts his life’s joys, sorrows, hopes, and accomplishments. The bloom reminds him of his youth and old age all at once, the perfect circle of life, the duality of existence, and he is encouraged by that guiding principle of completeness and wholeness of beginnings and endings feeding each other. He picks the flower and takes it to his grandchildren to teach them the song he learned as a child.

While I do not have practical experience and make no suggestion that you try anything without consulting a professional, it is said that crushing the fresh leaves and applying on arthritic hands helps ease the pain, but if left on the skin too long will create a blister. Some other medicinal uses include a tincture to calm symptoms of menopause and insomnia, as well as to treat panic attacks.

I find beauty and metaphor in every stage of pasque flower, even as the petals desiccate and fall off to reveal the puffy seeds, which are reminiscent of prairie smoke (Geum triflorum). Native bees, ants, and other early spring pollinators visit with gusto. I wish I had more of these in my garden, entire swaths even – they’ll display far longer than non native crocus, iris reticulata, or tulip, and are very tough, long-lived plants. Knowing their history here in my prairie region makes me love them even more, and I appreciate what they mean in my garden – a small reflection of something much larger.