Happy Hollydays

It’s a quarter past Thanksgiving in the great PNW and outside in the garden it’s (as Tigger would say) miserabibble.  Cold, damp and squishy underfoot, in planting beds the surface is too wet to walk upon without causing compaction and compromising five years of soil rehabilitation efforts.  So it’s straw mulch and repose for the soil, and while we’re at it, for the steward of this little patch (the repose, not the straw).

Autumn festivals celebrate successful harvests, reminding us that for something to be a blessing, time must be taken to fully appreciate it.  I admit that there are many times throughout the active growing season when I feel so beset with a lengthy task list I don’t make time to smell the roses.  Hardly the friendship I want to have with my little green corner of the commons. 

Yes, friendship.  What else to call such an intimate connection with another living being in which there is communication and response, giving and taking, attachment and dependency?  It’s a deep, and silent kind of sacredness worthy of tranquil contemplation. 

At first glance it might not seem that there is so much to see in this season of broken stems, rotting leaves, scrappy bare stems and reduced palettes.  Informed by the realization that dormancy is essential to the life cycle, a different aesthetic knowingness emerges in the winter garden.  This season calls to mind the darker, more melancholy facets of our experience as humans.  And, as with our other friendships, sharing repose or sorrow with a friend deepens the connection.

To see a world in a grain of sand 
and heaven in a wild flower 
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand 
and eternity in an hour.
William Blake

Bright showoffs that jazzed up the garden for months are gone now, away sleeping off the carnival.  The very air has changed, seeming at once tighter and more empty.  Old Sol wanders in late for work, peering about with bleary disinterest.  Sunbeams cut lower angles that create dramatic shadow.  In this lighting the bones of the garden are on display, drawing attention to texture and raw form.

Bare branches vaunt the fat promise of next year’s leaves.  Beneath the surface, gophers keep busy, pushing up small hills of clay transformed into friable crumbles ready to be built into next season’s garden soil

Gophers gonna goph. 

I say, let them. 

Nothing better for the soil,

and that, after all, is the heart of the matter


Hardscapes emerge, subtly changed,  stone and concrete damp and mossy, the birdbath closed-for-season.  Supporting actors step into leading roles for an empty theater: hardy shrubs like Euonymus show off bold, contrasty lines. Evergreen Winter Bloomers go on stage: Hellebore, Mahonia, Cyclamen, Dwarf Iris, Winter Heath, Witch Hazel Ornamental Heather, Winter Aconite, Scilla, Camellia, Fragrant Daphne, Winter Hazel and Winter Honeysuckle. 

Interesting evergreen foliage textures are the hallmark of the season: Yew, Spruce, Pine and Fir.

Some star performers in the handsome bark category include: Physocarpus, Hydrangea, Paperbark Maple, Red Twig Dogwood Coral Bark Japanese Maple and Paper Bark Birch. 

The bird species list has shortened. Summer’s begging fledglings and trumpeting papas have gone, replaced by mixed flocks of sparrows, two-tone horns on overhead goose highways, chipper chickadees, dour robins, and ravens shouting back and forth across curtains of morning fog.  Over the back meadow kestrels hunt and call in defiance of all but the foulest weather.

Dirty flowerpots, the cluttered shed, the tools that haven’t touched a whetstone in months will all have to wait a bit longer.  My hollydays will be spent in (as Elmer Fudd would say) west and wewaxation.  

The garden is a living, pulsing, singing, scratching, warring, erotic, and generally rowdy thing. I may find peace in its midst, but I regard it as a whole with many parts, a plural organism.
Diane Ackerman

Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.
A. A. Milne


Not that a new pastime was needed in my life, but this summer I was bitten by the bonsai bug.  The new-to-me world of bonsai has a wealth of riches:  Asian philosophy and art; loads of gorgeous and intelligent source books (with pictures!); passionately geeky aficionados (bonsai niwashi in Japanese) who are happy to share their expertise; and the certainty that I will never run out of new things to learn.  

Without a guide I might have been too hesitant to take the plunge, having in my callow youth killed more than one poor bonsai tree.  Fortunately, a mentor has fallen into my world.  It was the veritable forest of tiny trees surrounding Barbara’s residence which first got my attention and sparked our conversation.  Her friendliness and willingness to explain and begin teaching on the spot came as a happy surprise; I have since discovered that many bonsai folks love to talk about their craft and are generous with information.  The pride taken by bonsai niwashi (bonsai growers) in their “children” reflects the commitment and devotion involved;  successfully raising bonsai is neither casual nor sporadic.  Many bonsai niwashi spend time daily with their plants; if we love what we put our attention on, then these are arguably some of the dearest plants in existence.  

I wanted to know how and when Barbara became a bonsai owner; she explained that at twelve she spotted her first bonsai tree in an insignificant, tucked-away booth at a flower show in Albany, New York.  Her artist’s soul was instantly captivated by the aspect of great age magically embodied in such a small package.   That first imprinting proved indelible; as an adult she began collecting bonsai trees and has belonged to the Bonsai Society of Portland (BSOP) for two decades, currently serving as librarian.  At BSOP’s recent Bonsai Jamboree in Portland, Barbara took me on a guided tour through the gallery of exhibits to introduce terminology and point out features I might easily have missed.   To enter the world of bonsai is to begin to train one’s eye, and this show beckoned from every corner with its stunning specimens, handcrafted clay pots and cunning little tools, the proceedings underlain with a contented, purposeful hum.  During the show Barbara demonstrated transformation of a cotoneaster from nursery shrub to bonsai-just-begun, an undertaking reminiscent of Michelangelo:  I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.  Bonsai pruning is a pint-sized version of regular garden pruning which uses many of the same techniques with modifications like special concave cutters.  This tool removes branches by making indented cuts which eventually fill in with tissue, thereby avoiding scarring.

Shortly after the jamboree I accompanied Barbara to a BSOP meeting, where the atmosphere was just as friendly as at the show and bonsai wisdom was only a question away.  These monthly meetings are mini-versions of a show, with vendors, raffle, silent auction, plants on exhibit (who knew a snowberry could be bonsai-ed?!), and plenty of time and space for members to work on the plants they’ve brought along.  Socializing is ever so much easier when one’s hands are engaged in a task!  ?

Given that the interwebs abound in superb bonsai websites I’ll not re-invent the wheel, choosing rather to share my newbie-wonderment in all its chaotic glory. 

If you are looking for how-to information, skip to the end of this post for a smattering of sources or use your fave search engine; better yet, if you are so fortunate as to have a local bonsai club, go to a show or meeting.  Hang around and ogle the plants (hands in pockets, please!), ask a thoughtful question or two and if you find you need to know more, start in reading.

  • Bonsai plants have a front, or central focal point which is chosen and developed over time, in many cases years or even decades.
  • In theory nearly any plant can be coaxed into the bonsai form so long as it has a woody trunk and bears leaves that are small or will reduce in size.
  • Penjing is the ancestor of bonsai, being a Chinese word for miniature landscapes which include rocks and miniature figures.
  • Over time the art of bonsai has become less abstract; early in its history there was more interest in forms which called to mind the shapes of animals.
  • Hòn non bô is a Vietnamese miniature landscape made of rocks, plants and water- these can be anywhere from 1-25’ high and are placed permanently
  • Mai-dăt is a Thai version of bonsai resembling figures and poses from dance.
  • The Japanese art of suiseki involves selection and display of unique, unaltered stones.
  • Ikebana is flower arranging according to guidelines based on philosophical beliefs about human connections with nature.
  • The general sequence of creating bonsai goes like this:
    1. Selecting a plant;
    2. Growing the plant to suitable girth in a pot with lots of space and aeration for roots;
    3. Trimming, beginning with choosing a front and deciding on a general shape, which is then followed by many iterations of pruning;
    4. Training using wire, raffia or other suitable material; 
    5. Re-potting in a smaller container to cause stunting; and
    6. Ongoing care.
  • The one rule for watering bonsai is that there is no one rule for watering bonsai.  A plant’s water needs depend on season, weather, species, size of container and so on.  As I have learned (and still feel guilty about) compost is the technical term for bonsai whose roots have been allowed to dry out. 
  • A rather staggering number of things have to go right for a bonsai plant to be successful: symmetry/asymmetry; shape; color; texture of plant and container; position within the pot; sense of motion/rhythm; focal point; preservation of basic tree form; contrast and complementarity of living and non-living materials; correct proportion among parts of the plant and between plant/pot/platform; open space between branches; the effect of unity through consistency and elimination of extraneous parts; and correct technique (precision of pruning and wiring, overall plant health, miniaturization of leaves). 

Here you can find individualized care guides for many species of bonsai.

Bonsai plants are NOT grown in standard garden soil. A blend of components is customized for each particular tree, and contains:
Akadama – consists of clay balls which maximize ion exchange and oxygen supply to roots for maximum growth and strength; it is pre-heat sterilized and holds moisture without becoming waterlogged
Lava (red or black) – volcanic soil available in different particle sizes chosen for desired drainage traits
Pumice – light-colored, lightweight, porous volcanic rock

Special challenges for bonsai: 

? lack of frost hardiness

? over- and under-watering

? limited nutrient availability

? attack by bugs, fungi, bacteria

? sensitivity to heat, wind


Bonsai growers’ chemical arsenal

Words from the honorable bonsai cultivator John Naka:

The object is not to make the tree look like a bonsai, but to make the bonsai look like a tree.

Listen to the tree; it tells you where it wants to go!

The bonsai is not you working on the tree; you have to have the tree work on you


If a flower opens in the forest and no one is there to smell it, will there be a scent?  After a bit of poking around into various sources, I can confidently answer yes.  

“Why?” asks the Discerning Reader. “Cite your source”. 

Well, because science.  

Turns out, plants are not the strong silent types we assumed they were.  They talk, sort of.  The garden and forest fragrances we like are dispatches from one plant to another or to animal allies, and are not meant for humans at all:  

?Ouch! something is nibbling on my roots. Feels like nematodes. Send help.

?Itching all night long and what do I find at sunrise? Holes in my leaves, caterpillars everywhere, mass hysteria! Send help.

?Pollinators:  Get your fresh nectar here!

Scientists in the fields of plant biochemistry and plant physiology are beginning to decode these info-rich chemical messages with an eye to uses such as non-toxic pest control. 

If you are on the hunt for fragrant plants to transform your outdoor space into a mind-altering mini-Eden, the foregoing list may be helpful. 

Or, skip below for a murky, quirky, entirely unhelpful discussion of the sense of smell.

Is that Gaia’s face peering out?
Lavender dreams …
Sing it if you know it: “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”
Sage, bright and dark.
French Lavender photobombed by Coreopsis.

How does this sense work?  I’ll tell you – I don’t know.  But there are a lot of different parts involved and they are all located inside your skull.  The interwebs have a filth of riches if you would like to geek out on the current state of scientific knowledge.  Below you may or may not find a useful infographic.

Sense of smell info-morsels for nibbling types:

  • Noses outperform eyes and ears. We can see a few million colors and hear around half a million tones, but one postage stamp-sized patch of mucus-covered tissue at the top of the nasal passages lets us potentially distinguish between more than a trillion different smells.
  • Even single-celled organisms have a primitive sense of smell built into in their cell membranes.  
  • Smell is the first sense to develop.
Basil & Basil
  • Fresh-mown grass is a scent that instantly brings back fond memories for some who grew up in suburban neighborhoods, even those of us whose chores included lawn care. To revisit those summer days, you can get behind/aboard a mower, or skip the hassle and buy a cut-lawn-fragranced candle with a convincing, if artificial, mock-up of the real deal – how strange that would seem with snow on the ground!  Meanwhile in plant world, that same scent is actually a combined chorus of itty-bitty chemical screams, frantic signals for blade stumps to seal up their wounds and mobilize internal defenses.
  • 5% of our DNA is assigned to smell.
  • The use of aromas as a way of communicating information may have potential in teaching deafblind children.
  • Smell has been shown to play a role in: spending, dreams, blood sugar, memory, concentration and feelings of love. Perhaps science can find a way to make people in groups behave more charitably.  I’d support public funding for that.  
  • Smell information travels to the amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions involved in emotion and memory.  That’s why smells are so nostalgic (like Crayolas!).  
  • Studies have found that smell is an unconscious and purely emotional sense, affecting even the sleeping brain.  Alpha (relaxed) brain waves in the back of the head increase with lavender, while Beta (awake & alert) brain waves in the front of headincrease with jasmine. 
  • Bad smells, called “malodors” are correlated with an uptick in anxiety and angry behavior.
  • Up to 90% of our sense of taste depends on the ability to smell. Head injuries can cause smell loss which often leads to depression and anxiety.
  • Positive aromas can affect how fast we learn, eye-hand coordination and perception of time and space.  
  • Cucumber and green apple increase a sense of space, which can help with claustrophobia.  
  • Eucalyptus combined with menthol and camphor enhances empathy and eye-hand coordination.  
  • Think Vikings are cool?On your next UK trip, visit Jorvik Viking Centre, where you can experience the sights, sounds and smells of a Viking village.

Bubby LiV


A Little Green Corner of the Commons

by Bubby LiV

The noble hedge:  one of the most expressive and dynamic features in the man-made landscape.  A three-dimensional living wall, a garden that defies gravity.  Hedges and their beefier kin, hedgerows, have been around for at least 4,000 years.  In Great Britain, where their conservation is taken quite seriously, hedgerows are literally loved to the moon, with over 240,000 linear miles of managed hedgerows.

An early memory of mine goes back to preschool years; looking from my bed to see a nighttime silhouette of the hedge outside my window.  Viewed through young eyes, they were toy soldiers grown magically life-sized to watch over and protect a sleeping child.  

As an adult, my fondness for the mighty hedge is no less fervent for being grounded in waking reality.  Who doesn’t love a part of the garden capable of answering answer so many questions:

 How can different areas of my property be separated for different functions?  

What, other than a fence, can be used to delineate my property line?  

What will take the unsightly view of my neighbor’s yard out of my view-shed?  

How I cut down traffic noise, air pollution or  damage from prevailing winds?  

What can I do to keep the neighbor’s alpacas out of my yard?

How can I create a small play-yard which will contain a child while allowing visibility from the outside?

 How can I increase biodiversity, inviting desirable wildlife into my space by providing pollen, food and shelter?  

What is an innovative way to allow the winter sun to shine through and in summer -in that very same spot- to provide a shady nook where one can enjoy a cold one whilst browsing seed catalogues?  

Is there a way to grow food vertically?

In a classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur is sent by the Knights-who-say-Ni to find “a shrubbery”.  To his great good fortune Roger the Shrubber soon appears.  

 In real life the creation of a hedge is also a personal quest of sorts in which the home gardener relies upon her/his own planning and research to make sure things come out right.  There are so many great resources for planning shrubbery that your first challenge might be that of navigating back from the webs before planting season has passed you by.

Before diving into the mind-blowing range of available plant choices, it is prudent to do a needs assessment.  After all, to invite a hedge into one’s space is to embark upon a partnership, and impulse buys seldom turn out well for any relationship.  For a quick list of more mundane considerations, see Making Love Last.    

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the term “to plant” has already contained within itself the best possible advice:  plan.   

So, not to be a nag, but do your homework.  You won’t be sorry. 

And then comes the fun part:  choosing your plants.

If you are a traditionalist with a good eye, a mean set of shears and a ton of energy wanting to create leaping dolphins or icosahedrons from your greenery, the time honored topiary choices will serve well.  Boxwood (Buxus sp.), Privet (Ligustrum sp.), Laurel (Prunus sp.), Yew (Taxus sp.), and Holly (Ilex sp.) are favorites.  

If your space has a Mediterranean feel, consider Euonymus (Euonymus japonicus), Photinia (Photinia sp.), Holly (Ilex sp.), Arborvitae (Thuja sp.) or California Wild Lilac (Ceanothus sp.).   

A fan of cottage style?  Your best match might be one of the following: Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.), Holly (Ilex sp.), California Wild Lilac (Ceanothus sp.), Arrowwood (Viburnum sp.), Escallonia (Escallonia sp.), Lilac (Syringa sp.) or Barberry (Berberis sp.).

After a tranquil zen feel?  Clumping bamboo (Fargesia sp.), Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolia), False holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’), Rhododendron (Rhododendron sp.) and Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica) are all worthwhile options.

Among hedge plants Arborvitae is one of the most recognizable.  The abundance of species and cultivars will simplify finding your perfect match.  For traditional hedges the following are good choices:   American Arborvitae  (Thuja occidentalis ‘Nigra’), Green Giant Arborvitae (Thuja standishii x plicata ‘Green Giant’), American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and Emerald Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Emerald’).  Easy to find in garden centers and nurseries, arborvitae does have a few limitations:

1.It is difficult to look at a neat row of arborvitae and not think of Tuscany, so I have always felt that this plant somewhat limits the feel of surrounding garden to a Mediterranean motif.  It simply does not, for me, vibe ‘temperate zone’, with the possible exception of, say, a cemetery.  It does not seem to mesh well with styles like English cottage or hardwood forest. 

2.As a row of arborvitae fills in over time, the layer-upon-layer of waxy scale leaves shed rainfall, developing dry pockets with shade-killed interior branches that are as dry and dusty as a pharoah’s tomb.  One solution is to open up the architecture, streamlining lower branches by trimming away secondary growth.  Careful removal of the mass of prim green skirt will open to view the rough reddish trunk and limbs, as well as providing easier access for irrigation and mulching.  If desired, underplanting can be added for a pleasing effect.

3.In overcrowded conditions, a previously thriving arborvitae hedge can begin to exhibit symptoms of drought stress followed by an abrupt and irreversible crash; from showing yellow-brown patches to sudden death only months later.  The cry for help might go unheard unless a gardener is, so to speak, riding the fence-line.  It’s a disturbing image, the row of formerly stately arborvitae trees punctuated by standing brown corpses of their comrades.

4.If pruning is neglected for too long, subsequent efforts to rein in the exuberant foliage may leave behind a horribly hacked-up look.

 Planting a hedge has elements of fun and whimsy, but is also the beginning of a long-term relationship.  As with any mutually beneficial association between living beings -at least one of whom is human- understandings and agreements should be in place from the outset.  Impulse plant buys are rarely a good idea and elopement is not an option.  

 Now, get out there and fall in love!